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Ipswich Icons: How our oaks built some mighty vessels. Perhaps, even, the Mayflower

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:25 21 May 2017

A painting by John Cleverley the Elder from 1748. It is a composition, placing a number of different vessels together, close to John's Ness on the Orwell. The vessel on the stocks is probably the Hampshire (50 guns).
Picture: National Maritime Museum

A painting by John Cleverley the Elder from 1748. It is a composition, placing a number of different vessels together, close to John's Ness on the Orwell. The vessel on the stocks is probably the Hampshire (50 guns). Picture: National Maritime Museum

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Ships have been built on the banks of the Orwell since time immemorial, writes John Norman of The Ipswich Society.

A replica of the Mayflower built in 1957A replica of the Mayflower built in 1957

It is claimed the stern rudder was developed in Ipswich. It certainly features on the common seal of Ipswich – the first depiction of such a device – which can be dated to circa 1200, when King John granted Ipswich its charter.

Prior to this, ships were steered by an oar over the side: a “steer board” on the starboard side of the vessel. This device was potentially in the way when docking unless they “tied up” with the “port” side against the quay.

The rudder, hanging from the stern post and controlled from an on-board tiller (wheel), greatly improved the manoeuvrability of the vessel, although altering the direction of travel of a ship under sail doesn’t necessarily have an immediate effect.

There were a number of reasons why Ipswich and the Orwell were ship-building centres. The river provided a wide expanse of deep sheltered water (wide so that ships could be launched across the channel from a slip on the bank); the proximity of London and the coastal trade (the Orwell was the one safe haven between the Thames and the Humber). Most of the large vessels built on the Orwell until the end of the 18th Century were designed for use between London (and adjacent ports) and east and north-east coastal towns, or to make the short sea crossing to the Low Countries.

The Mayflower reconstruction shows the keel, laid with the first of the ribs standing tall. Picture: IPSWICH SOCIETYThe Mayflower reconstruction shows the keel, laid with the first of the ribs standing tall. Picture: IPSWICH SOCIETY

The most important reason the ships were built here and not in London was the abundance of Suffolk oak. When Elizabeth I came, she visited Oaken Suffolk, the great oak woods extending to the river. The logs could be floated to the sawmills in Ipswich, dragged behind sailing vessels on the rising tide, but, equally, the shipyard could be temporarily moved down-river to be near the source of the timber.

Motive power was frequently provided by 10 or so oarsmen in a small rowing boat, a tug which would drag logs and occasionally the floating hull of a sailing vessel all the way down-river to Harwich for fitting out. This seemingly impossible task was made feasible by the run of the tide.

Vessels for the King’s Navy were built at John’s Ness, on the banks of the river just south of Ipswich. (Today, John’s Ness is the site of the Orwell Bridge). Both John Barnard and William Hubbard built boats which were too large for the yards at St Clements on the bank of the Orwell, and then floated them down-river to be fitted out (masts, sheets, sails, blocks and tackle) at Harwich.

Harwich was of course the home port of the Mayflower. She was fitted out there, perhaps as early as 1580, and for the first years of her life sailed between England and northern Europe, carrying English cloth returning from La Rochelle with French wine. When the Mayflower took the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620, the captain was Christopher Jones, a local man who lived in Kings Head Street, Harwich (in a building that still stands today).

The implication here is that she was built on the banks of the Orwell and towed down to Harwich for her fit-out. We have no collaborated evidence to support this but it is a wonderful story. Most ships in the era of the Mayflower were built on the east coast, notably the Susan Constant, which was one of the three ships that took Bartholomew Gosnold and the first English settlers to Jamestown in 1606/07.

The Harwich Mayflower Project is building an authentic replica of the ship that carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America. It’s under construction in Harwich and can be seen in The Railyard, George Street. They are hoping to launch the ship in 2018 and sail her to America in 2020 (400 years after the Pilgrim Fathers).

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