Earles Shipyard, Victoria Docks

By the end of the 18th century Kingston-upon-Hull was a flourishing port with the largest whaling fleet in the country and the centre of an important trade network with northern Europe. Earles Shipyard was located on Victoria Dock, which opened in 1850 and was the first dock constructed in the city east of the River Hull. In 1851, brothers Charles and William Earle rented a piece of land between the eastern end of the dock and the River Humber which they laid out as a shipyard. The first ship launched by the brothers was the 100 ton ‘Minister Thorbecke’ (named after the Dutch Prime Minister) for the Zwolle Shipping line of Holland. These early ships were launched straight into Victoria Dock, however following a devasting fire the shipyard expanded eastwards in 1864, enabling the company to launch vessels directly into the Humber.

 

Earles Shipyard in 1924. The remains of the posts propping up the ships still survive on site.
Earles Shipyard in 1924. The remains of the posts propping up the ships still survive on site.

By 1865 Earles was one of the largest ship builders in the country, laying down Humber lightships, Nile paddle steamers, vessels for local shipping companies and Russian aristocrats as well as the British and Japanesse navies. Perhaps the two most famous ship built by Earles were the SS Ollanta and the SS Inca for service with the Peruvian Corporation to use on Lake Titicaca. These steamship were built as 'knock down' ships, fully constructed on the humber, dissasembled, crated up and then rebuilt in Peru.  The SS Ollanta was launched as a passenger and cargo ship on the 18th November 1931 and was still in service at the end of the century. Earles also built the Bessemer, designed by Henry Bessemer to combat his dreadful seasickness. He created a 'swinging saloon' in the centre of the ship controlled by hydraulic arms to counter the rocking of the boat. The Bessemer was launched in 1874 but sadly only sailed twice before crashing into Calais pier in 1875 and being scrapped.

HMS St George was an Edgar class destroyer built at Earles in 1892
HMS St George was an Edgar class destroyer built at Earles in 1892

After the First World war bussiness was thriving and the shipyard built many of the tugs and fishing trawlers operating in the Humber Estuary. By the start of the Great Depression however the compnay was in trouble and beginning to flaunder. Finally in 1932 the shipyard was purchased by National Ship Builders Security (a goverment backed scheme to rationalise British shipbuilding) and closed down. All of the yards equipment was sold off with the companies largest crane being dismantled and shipped to Hong Kong for use in the Kowloon Dockyard. When Earles finally closed the company had built 682 vessels. 

Today the foreshore at the site is covered in hard metal slag (the waste product from creating iron), which we belive would have poured molten on to the riverbanks in the 19th century to provide a hard footing. In amongst the slag are the bottoms of square, wooden piles and wooden sleepers, we think that these are the remains of Earles' Slipway Number 1 and the wooden piles that would have been used to prop up ships as they were being built.

Two off our volunteers from the East Riding Archaeology Society recording the remains of Slipway Number 1
Two off our volunteers from the East Riding Archaeology Society recording the remains of Slipway Number 1

Three wooden boats can been seen on the site of Earles Shipyard's tidal dock today, although they have noting to do with the shipyard itself. The two most riverward vessels are thought to be the remains of either Humber keels (the workhorses of the estuary in the 18th and 19th centuries carrying everything from coal to grain up and down the rivers of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire) or lighters (unpowered vessels that would have been used as floating stores and cargo barges dragged behind a powered vessel). The holds of both boats appear to have been lined with metal sheeting in the past so that they could carry a 'liquid' cargo, which may have been a wet 'liquid' like petroleum but could also have been a dry 'liquid' like grain or sand. The boat closest to the shore has a much sleeker profile and is thought to have a been a sloop or similar ship, which would have been able to go on much further deepwater journeys then a Humber Keel. On the right of the photo below you can also see a double row of squared posts, these represent the line of the Victorian waterfront, before the modern pavement was installed in the late 1980s.

Three wooden hulks can be seen on the foreshore today
Three wooden hulks can be seen on the foreshore today