Ipswich Icons: The town’s shipbuilding heritage

The slip at St Clement's Yard into the Orwell. Pictures JOHN NORMAN

The slip at St Clement's Yard into the Orwell. Pictures JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

Talk of the Upper Orwell Crossings has John Norman thinking about the town’s shipbuilding heritage

The slip at St Clement's Yard into the Orwell. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

The slip at St Clement's Yard into the Orwell. Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

The recent publication of the route of the proposed Upper Orwell Crossing causes me to look at what will be lost when the bridge is built.

The line is approximately from the Rapier Street roundabout on the Wherstead Road to Toller Road and a new road junction where Holywells Road meets Landseer Road.

What is likely to be lost under the eastern abutment is Ipswich’s last shipyard, a slip currently operated by Red7Marine, who took over from George Pryor Ship Repairers.

Before that it was operated by Sacker’s as a scrap metal yard.

Patent slip railway. Picture: ARCHANT

Patent slip railway. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The presence of shipyards in this corner of the river is due to the construction of the Wet Dock in 1842, but to make things a little clearer we need to go back to 1829.

Before the 1820s there was little activity on the river bank south of Patteson Road (which itself didn’t arrive until after the Wet Dock had been constructed).

Most Read

A bank had been built alongside Cliff Road which at the time was a rope walk, keeping the rising tide from the firm ground beyond.

John Chevallier Cobbold purchased these salt marshes in 1829, almost certainly in full knowledge of the proposal to enclose the tidal river behind lock gates, with the intention of selling parcels of his purchase as quayside warehousing.

His first “customers” were the Ransome brothers, who built their Eagle Works on the reconstructed marsh.

To construct the Wet Dock both the New Cut had to be dug (the arising becoming the Island Site) and the enclosed basin deepened (the material dug being deposited on Cobbold’s marsh creating a level quay just above the high water level).

As a bonus Cobbold was paid a handsome sum for allowing the spoil to be dumped on his land. At the bend in the river, where the university is now, there were shipyards: slips into the river on which sizeable vessels were built.

One of the requirements of these slips is that they disappear into tidal water.

Ships to be repaired can then be berthed above the slip at high tide, and as the water recedes the ship settles onto the slip, enabling access to the hull that was below the waterline.

Ipswich men had been building ships at St Clement’s shipyard and in the yards immediately adjacent for perhaps 400 years.

In total there had been six yards between the university and Patteson Road, although they didn’t all operate at the same time.

The plans for the enclosure of the Wet Dock required the last of these yards to move, to just outside the dock on Cobbold’s land adjacent to the brewery. Between 1842 and 1881 there was simply a dam across the southern end of the dock; the lock being half way up the western side, interconnecting with the New Cut.

The displaced yards were, just under the dam, the Dock End Yard initially operated by William Colchester, William Bayley’s St Clement’s Yard and a new and occasional yard belonging to John Cobbold, where his own ships were repaired.

John Cobbold died in 1860 and this yard was taken over by William Bailey.

After William Colchester retired the Dock End Yard passed through various hands until it was acquired by R & W Paul Ltd in 1901.

Initially they built several barges for their own use but after the Second World War the yard was used to maintain their extensive fleet of barges and lighters.

Dock End Yard finally closed in the 1970s, although a couple of barges remained here, resting on the mud for perhaps 20 years.

All traces of Cobbold’s Yard have disappeared but St Clement’s Yard remains.

It features a patent slip railway, which is a multi-wheeled carriage on a short length of track laid on the slip and disappearing into deeper water.

The number of boat builders in Ipswich has fluctuated over the centuries. Recently a number have gone into administration and today only Spirit Yachts are building vessels on the River Orwell.