It has been suggested that small, square-sailed boats were being built at Brixham in the earlier 17th century. The shape of the sails and the size of the ships increased over the next century. The first picture of a shipyard is of one painted J. M. W. Turner just before 1800 (and published in 1821) which shows the ribs of a new vessel on the east side of the harbour [where Upham's yard was later located]. Evidence of early ship-building in Brixham can be found in the Exeter Flying Post. It is likely that vessels were built to a contract and only rarely offered for sale unless, perhaps, the buyer defaulted. It is therefore of great value to read in 1783:

Compleat new brig now building att [sic] Brixham, ready for launch in six weeks. Burthen about 80 tons; will be a very fast sailer and calculated for the Newfoundland trade. John Scoble, Junior.
[25 Dec. 1783]

Four years later another vessel was for sale:

By private contract, a new brig on the stock at Brixham Quay; carpenters' measurement and ready to be launched twenty days hence. Particulars from Matthews & Eames, Brixham Quay.
[18 Jan. 1787].

A recent study quotes a 1804 Return to Parliament of shipwrights and apprentices. The largest shipbuilder in Brixham then was "Mr Wheaton" with 3 shipwrights and 3 apprentices. The only others with shipwrights were: Thomas Wood (2) and Messrs. Furneaux (1). Other yards working then were: Messrs. Avery & Pillar; Messrs. Lane and Tuckerman; Samuel Matthews and Stephen Richardson.

In 1823 the account book of Joseph Bailey shows payments and work done at an unnamed shipbuilding and repair yard. The names listed include ship owners: Vittery, Turpin, Matthews, and Bartlett.

One account to "Lyte" for an unnamed vessel itemises:

1828. Mar 16. J. Bartlett (wages) 3s 6d
Boy ( ditto ) 2s
3½ft. 1in. elm 1s 2d
1lb. 10 penny nails 10d
2ft. oak 8d
Timber 8d
Paid to A Turpin Total 8s 8d

Other accounts include:

Rudder & tiller for the Providence
Repairs (3 wks. wk. for 2 men) for the Lavenia
Work on "Exisa boat" (items include 10d nails, roves and knees): 6 days work on a boat for the 1828 Regatta belonging to Capt. Spragg of Torquay.

Early in the 19th century there were two shipbuilders (according to Pigot's Directory, 1832): Frederick Baddeley of Ranscombe and Matthews, Dewdney, also of Ranscombe. The growth of both Brixham and the industry can be seen. White's Devon Directory (1850) lists five: Robert & Christopher Furneaux, Samuel Matthews, John Richardson, John Upham and J & S Dewdney. There were several ropemakers at work also: S. Clark in New Road; Chas. & Sam Clarke on Furzeham Common (also a "patent ropemaker"); John Davis (New Road); Joseph Green (Furzeham Common); W. Green in Burton St. (described as "banker & pat. rope-mkr") and William Yeo (Bolton Street). During a great storm in October 1859 (in some parts of Torbay damage was as severe as in the 1866 Storm) "at Brixham shipbuilders's yards were flooded and timber to a large amount carried away. Mr Richardson, Mr Upham and Mr Dewdney have lost timber valued to the amount of £300. Several vessels in the repairing yards were washed off their stocks".

The shipyards of Brixham were:

J W & A Upham founded 1817, possibly earlier (although not in Pigot's list). The works & yards covered 3 acres in the 1890s and could deal with vessels up to 400 tons burthen. Earlier launchings included: Nonpareil; Star of Peace (142 tons), built 1860 and the Fanny Fern. Upham's exhibited at the "Fisheries Exhibition" in 1883. Known to have been built at Upham's: Queen of the clippers, Pelican and the schooners Via (126 tons; Tyrer, both owner & master) and Madcap (launched 1871; 199 tons).

Fishing vessels known to have been built there include (in chronological order) [Ketches under 40 tons were always known in Brixham as "mules"]:

1838 Charlie (DH 79)
1877 Fish Girl (DH 52) - went to Plymouth in 1888.
1896 Ibex (BM 27) - said to be "the fastest sailing trawler in the West".
1907 Nisha
1917 William & Sam (BM352)
1926 Vigilance, last fishing smack to be built there.

A new era for Upham's dawned in July 1939 when the new dry dock opened (it measured 150 x 50 ft.). During World War 2 over 1,000 vessels built or repaired for the Government; for a time Breakwater Beach became a shipyard again. The last major task undertaken was the building of Mayflower II in 1956 (it reached the USA in July 1957). The Company sought permission from Torbay Council in 1984 to purchase the "floor of the harbour" so that a plan for residential development could go ahead on the site.

Dewdney & Sons, King Street. Known as the "Torbay Shipbuilding Yard", it was owned by Sidney John and Daniel Dewdney in the 1890s. Originally established between 1800 and 1810 (Sidney John was once quoted as saying "1800", Daniel thought the date "1810"), the yard could deal with vessels to 200 tons. An early launching was an unnamed vessel in 1838. Later launches included: Emily Florence, Our Boys, Merry Lass, all merchant schooners. Others (fishing vessels included):

1854 Dauntless (235 tons), a clipper-brig launched for the Med. trade.
1858 Blue Jacket
1879 Foundling, a trawler.
1889 Leonard (52 tons) ketch-rigged, fitted with a Proctor & Co. steam capstan and for the Lundy fisheries.
1898 Hermes (DH 438) - owned by Vittery.

Robert Furneaux. His yard was inside the Harbour, the last vessel launched there being the Quiver. Furneaux is also known to have built the merchant schooner Polly in 1866 (POR Teignmouth, 158 tons; Earl, master; Ward, owner).

John Richardson, King Street. Only two launches recorded: the cutter Vivid launched in 1850 and Witch of the Waves (269 tons), a clipper-brig for the West Indies trade in 1855.

Robert Jackman. Originally known as Barters It was established in about 1850 at Breakwater Yard by Robert Jackson and his four sons, Sidney, Robert, Walter and Tom. Jackman's moved its operations next door to Upham's in about 1912.The yard was derelict in 1935. Some of the fishing craft built there include:

1889, Jun. Mignonette, a trawler built for Mr. G. Gardiner "by whom she was commanded".
1892 Geina (DH 355), owned by Perrett and broken up in 1928.
1912 Terminist BM321; the last trawler launched from old yard.
1925 Boy Aubrey (BM 48) - lost in collision, 1930.
1926 Encourage (BM63, 54 tons); the last smack built at new yard.

At the present time, little is known about the following yards: Cotties, at Shoalstone; Osbourne's at Fishcombe and P V Munday, said to have been in King Street in about 1910.

Among other trades involved in the industry was John Blake of Overgang, described as a "dealer in oils, tar, venetian, varnish. Sails barked on the premises; best Yellow and Red French Ochre used".


Nineteenth century maps show show there were three ropewalks. In the 1890s one was located near the Windmill on Windmill Hill (it was owned by S Elliott & Son, the offices being in Bolton Street). The firm was awarded a "Medal and Certificate for Rope" and the Torbay, Dart & Teign Exhibition in 1888. However, the structure had "almost disappeared" by 1938. Another ropewalk was situated to the south-east of Raehill House; a third was on the north side of Furzeham Common. However, for some years, there were two at Furzeham. The one furthest away from the Common was known as "Bartlett's". The one adjoining was newer and known as "Varwell's", although this had been built as long ago as 1838, according to a date cut in the wall. It was in use until the 1914-18 War. "Bartlett's" was said to have deposits of tar and manila several inches thick built up over the many years it had been in use. Part of the apparatus, which was turned by a horse, could still be seen in the 1920s. Its dimensions were: 300 yards long by 11 feet wide and there were 77 uprights of brick, which held up the roof. One end was the head, or "fore-head"; the other the foot, or "back-end". At the head was a wheel which worked a number of whirls with small hooks - one for each rope. There was a spinner (the rope-maker) allocated to each whirl; he placed a swash (or bight) of hemp over the spinning hook and began walking backwards feeding in fresh hemp (which he had earlier wrapped round his waist) as he went. As the yarn increased in length, it was slung over hooks in the roof. At the foot of the walk, the spinner began walking back towards the head (winding the yarn on to a reel which he held taut), taking the yarn off the hooks as he walked. The yarn was then twisted into strands, the strands into ropes. Although a man named Cartwright had invented a rope-making machine in 1792, hand methods continued to used for many years. Brixham had several "patent rope-makers" in the 19th century.

© copyright John Pike

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