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A Shipbuilding History. 1750-1932 (Alexander Stephen and Sons): Chapter 5

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Whaler 'Bloodhound II' re-named 'Discovery' in 1872
Captain Scott's Exhibition ship, the 'Terra Nova', icebound. Built at Dundee in 1884

CHAPTER FIVE. The Dundee Whalers

These splendid ships, each with her grace, her glory, Her memory of old song or comrade's story, Still in my mind the image of life's need, Beauty in hardest action, beauty indeed. MASEFIELD

THE part played by the Stephens in the revival of the Scottish whaling industry, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, forms one of the most stirring chapters in the Firm's history. To Alexander Stephen and his son, William, belonged in a large degree the credit of re-establishing the whaling and sealing trades in Dundee.

Although not the originators of the idea of applying steam to whaling vessels, they were among the first builders to appreciate its importance to the industry. An experiment with Baillie Clark's Tay, which had been fitted with an auxiliary screw propeller, having had encouraging results at the Davis Strait fishery, the Stephens seized on the idea and developed it with characteristic enthusiasm. Remarkable success attended the departure, and for many years the building of steam- whalers for Greenock, Newfoundland and Dundee owners was a leading feature of the business.

Profiting by the experience of seamen frequenting the Arctic Seas, and the advance of engineering knowledge, William Stephen was ever ready to investigate and adopt anything that might improve the whaling trade. Eventually he became interested in the industry as an owner, and for many years met with excellent results. He usually constructed and sent out two new vessels every February, and of these the Eagle, completed in 1871, and the Neptune, 1872, are still at work after sixty years' service. When the Greenland seal fishing threatened to become unremunerative, he sent his ships to the Newfoundland coast with such success that other owners soon followed his example.

Himself a man of keen judgment, William Stephen was quick to recognize similar qualities in others, with the result that his whaling-vessels were officered by some of the ablest men who sailed the northern seas. Captain William Adams, probably the most experienced whaler captain of his day, was long in William Stephen's service, and successfully commanded some of his most powerful Arctic vessels. Even in adverse seasons, when other shipmasters returned from the Greenland and Davis Straits but poorly fished, Captain Adams always managed to obtain a good catch. Several years, however, before his death, his connexion with the Firm was severed when he left the Stephens' employment and became a shareholder in a vessel which he commanded with considerable success.

In the extension of this side of the business, William Stephen erected in 1881 the Arctic tannery, at Marine Parade, Dundee, where he made arrangements for storing, tanning and curing sealskins. This was a separate business from the whale yard, wherein were situated the tanks for the storage and treatment of the oil and where the salted skins and whalebone were stowed. Like his other ventures, this tannery prospered remarkably, and, during the 'seventies, its stock of sealskins, oil and whalebone was one of the largest in the kingdom. The tannery was still in existence at the time this history was in course of compilation.

During the 'seventies the Firm also leased a piece of ground on the south of St. John's harbour, Newfoundland, building thereon a fine yard for the rendering of their produce. Large storage and sunning tanks, blubber-crushing machines, skinning-room, boiling coppers, cooperage, coal depot and other equipment were erected. This yard gave the vessels quick handling, enabling them to get away direct to the Davis Strait as soon as the Newfoundland seal-fishing was over. For the sealing the Dundee crews were supplemented by several hundred Newfoundlanders, and while some Dundee captains for the time being gave place to Newfoundland commanders, the Stephens did not often follow this practice. The ships literally swarmed with men at these times, as all the seals had to be killed and put aboard by hand.

Some idea of the scope of this side of the business may be gathered from the fact that in one year the Arctic brought home twenty-eight whales, of which a number were probably small. A sizable fish would yield about twenty tons of oil and a ton of whalebone, the latter fetching, in the ordinary way, about 37.c) per ton in the 'fifties. During the American Civil War, when, by curious coincidence, the Yankee whaling fleet was badly mauled by the Kelvinhaugh-built Shenandoah, the price of whalebone soared to an unprecedented level, considerably enriching the Dundee whalers.


Being specially constructed for arduous service in the ice of the Northern seas, the whalers built in the Stephens' yard were much sought after for Polar expeditions. In the list of Dundee-built vessels at the end of this volume will be found many names now famous in the annals of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, including the Nimrod, completed in 1866; the Bloodhound II (renamed the Discovery), 1872; the Aurora, 1876; Bear, 1874; Thetis, 1881; and the Terra Nova, 1884.

The Bloodhound II, which was renamed the Discovery by the British Government, who acquired her for their expedition to investigate the North-West Passage, should not be confused with the later vessel of that name, built by the Dundee Shipbuilders in the old Stephen yard in 1899-1901. The Alert, constructed by the Firm at Kelvinhaugh, in 1869, was also chosen by Sir George Nares for his venture of 1875.

The vessels Nimrod and Aurora played leading parts in the Antarctic voyages of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The first-named had the honour of carrying that famous explorer south on his first expedition of 1908, which has been well described as "one of the most brilliant exploits of Antarctic exploration." The Nimrod entered the Ross Sea in the January of that year, when she attempted to land a party on King Edward VII Land, but was foiled by heavy ice and forced to return to Ross Island, where Scott had set up his base in 1902. Here Shackleton landed and unloaded his stores and equipment with all speed, in order that the ship might return to New Zealand before the sea froze over. From Ross Island he set out for the Pole in November, 1908, and succeeded in reaching a point within 133 miles of his goal before bad weather and lack of food forced him to abandon the attempt.

Returning to pick up Shackleton and his party in the following February, the Nimrod's crew was dismayed to find that the expedition had not yet returned to its base. Though the risk of being frozen in increased almost hourly, the vessel lingered in McMurdo Sound several days after her official departure date, and thus sighted the distress signal kindled by Shackleton and Wild. Thanks to this deliberate delay the whole party was rescued, and the Nimrod turned north again just in time to escape the icy grasp of the swiftly-freezing sea.

The Aurora was one of the ships selected for Shackleton's 1914 expedition. This venture involved two parties; that of the Endurance, which carried Shackleton and his companions into the terrible Weddell Sea, and a secondary expedition, in the Aurora, which was to set up a base on Ross Island and lay down a trail of provision depots along Shackleton's route, to assist him on the later stages of his march across the Pole.

Though public interest centred chiefly on the dramatic fate of the Endurance, crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea, the Aurora expedition had also its share of triumph and disaster. It is recorded that "considerable difficulty was experienced afterwards in relieving the men who had landed on Ross Island. The Aurora, in which they had sailed south, was imprisoned in heavy pack ice for many months, and her rudder was broken and her coal exhausted before she was set free. Further delay was caused by the necessity for repairs, and the seven survivors of the ten men of the shore party had already been in the Antarctic for nearly two years before the Aurora returned to bring them away." It is interesting to note that the Aurora went south with Dr. Mawson prior to her service with Shackleton.

In 1884 the Thetis (which must not be confused with the steel barque of that name, built by the Firm in 1885), together with the sealer, Bear, was sold to the United States' Government for relief work, in connexion with the ill-fated Greely expedition. The price of the Thetis was £28,000, which included an allowance for the estimated "success" of the sealing and whaling voyage upon which she was just setting out when she changed hands. She was on the point of departure for St. John's and the Davis Strait, and had aboard all her stores and tanks, which had to be removed before she was handed over.

The Thetis and Bear, together with the collier Lough Garry, and the Alert, given by the British Government, formed the expedition to relieve Greely's party, which, having been sent out in 1881 by the United States' Government, to make astronomical observations in the Arctic, had spent three years without fresh supplies, owing to the failure of previous relief vessels. The Thetis and Bear, after making a remarkably early passage through the Davis Strait, succeeded in rescuing the seven survivors of the twenty-five original members of the expedition at Cape Sabine.

An interesting reference to the sealer, Bear, appeared in the "Shipbuilding and Shipping Record" for March 3ist, 1932, in which it was stated. that after the Greely relief expedition the vessel served as a patrol-boat in the sealing grounds of the North Pacific until 1899, when the duty being transferred to the revenue service, she continued to patrol Arctic waters, under the U.S. Coastguard flag, from San Diego. It also appears that she served the U.S. Navy as a patrol-boat during the War, and was the vessel which brought Amundsen home after the failure of his Polar flight in 1923. Replaced by the Washington Government in 1924, she was laid up in San Francisco for some time; the above reference suggests that Admiral Byrd is at present negotiating for her acquisition for use in connexion with his next Polar venture.

The Greely relief party was accompanied by several of the Stephens' Dundee-built whalers, whose owners had been attracted by the handsome reward offered for the discovery of the lost explorers. Among these were the Arctic, Aurora, Esquimaux, Narwhal, Polynia and the Wolf, several of which had been previously sold by the Stephens. The surgeon of the Aurora, Dr. Lindsay, has since published a most interesting account of that season's whaling.

One of the most famous vessels ever built by the Dundee yard was undoubtedly the Terra Nova, immortalized by her association with the Scott expeditions of 1901 and 1910. She was a three-masted wooden sealer, built by the Firm in 1884, to their own account. Of 744 tons and 187 ft. in length, barque-rigged and fitted with auxiliary steam power, she had already seen considerable service in Arctic waters when the British Government acquired her for work in the far south.

In 1903, when fears arose as to the safety of the Discovery, then ice-bound in McMurdo Sound, the societies responsible for the Scott Expedition approached the Government regarding the dispatch of a relief vessel. As the Admiralty could not afford to risk failure, it was decided that two ships should be sent, the Morning and the Terra Nova, the latter being specially purchased and adapted for the purpose. To avoid delay the Terra Nova was taken in tow by a succession of cruisers, until by the end of November, 1903, she reached the Tasmanian coast. In December she sailed south with the Morning, bearing the order that "if the Discovery could not be freed in time to accompany the relief ships home, she must be abandoned in the ice." Happily, however, this was not necessary, as the ice broke up sufficiently to enable her to return to New Zealand with the Terra Nova in the spring of 1904.

Five years later, in September, 1909, the Terra Nova was chosen to carry Scott's second expedition into the Antarctic. She was purchased for the purpose by Messrs. David Bruce and Co., for the sum of £12,500, her owners at the time being C. T. Bowring and Company, who contributed £500 towards the expedition, and greatly assisted Scott to raise funds in Liverpool. It is interesting to recall that Messrs. Bruce and Co. also subscribed their commission on the deal towards the venture.

The Terra Nova was handed over to Scott in the West India Dock, London, in November, 1909. She was docked by the Glengall Ironworks Company, who altered her to meet the needs of her new service. She was rigged as a barque, her original rig, and a large, well-insulated ice-house, holding 150 carcasses of frozen meat, was erected on her upper deck. Other alterations and additions included the rebuilding of her galley, and the installation of a new stove; the fitting of the wardroom with mess tables and lockers; the construction of a lamp-room, with tanks to hold zoo gallons of paraffin, and the addition of new storerooms, an instrument-room and a chronometer-room. Her saloon was altered to accommodate 24 officers, while a smaller mess was built for her warrant-officers. Two large, zinc-lined magazines and a clothing-store were constructed between-decks, while a new mizzen-mast was fitted and all her blubber-tanks withdrawn.

On 1st June, 191o, she left London Docks for the Solent, Captain Scott accompanying her as far as Greenhithe. A fine picture of her departure will be found in Ponting's Great White South, wherein the author describes how "amidst the cheers of thousands on both sides of the river," the Terra Nova "steamed slowly down the Thames to the screaming of steamers' whistles and the wailing of ocean liners' sirens. Nearly every craft on the river was dressed for the occasion, and each steamer dipped her flag and gave loud blasts on her whistle in salute as we glided by. The progress of the rugged whaler down the Thames was like a triumphal procession."

On reaching the Solent the Terra Nova was registered as a yacht; she was thus entitled to fly the burgee of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and had also the honour of sailing under the White Ensign. Leaving the Solent, she visited Cardiff, to take in a gift of several hundred tons of coal before leaving for the Cape. She left South Africa in September and a stone model of a Viking ship has been erected at Cape Town to commemorate her departure.

Reaching Lyttelton harbour, New Zealand, she was unloaded, thoroughly overhauled and completely re-stored, many final additions being made to her stores and equipment. As in the case of her predecessor, the Discovery, she was heavily overloaded, her cargo including a number of Siberian dogs and ponies. It is said that she left Port Chalmers on 29th November with her Plimsoll line almost a foot under water!

After leaving New Zealand the Terra Nova ran into a terrific gale, during which her pumps became choked with coal-dust, causing her to settle deeply in the water and be in danger of foundering. However, continuous hard work by every member of the expedition brought her safely through.

Arriving in Antarctic waters, the Terra Nova commenced her struggle through the ice in search of winter headquarters for the expedition. That Scott became greatly attached to her is obvious from the following notes, written during this period. He says, "The ship behaved splendidly - no other ship, not even the Discovery, would have come through so well. Certainly the Nimrod would never have reached the south water had she been caught in such a pack. As a result I have grown strangely attached to the Terra Nova. As she bumped the floes with mighty shocks, crushing and grinding a way through some, twisting and turning to avoid others, she seemed like a living thing fighting a great fight.

As the Discovery's old quarters in McMurdo Sound were frozen over, the Terra Nova dropped anchor off Cape Evans, Ross Island, one of the mountains on which now bears her name. From here she proceeded to transfer the western party to the ice near the Ferrar Glacier. She then attempted to land the eastern party on King Edward VII Land, but found the way blocked by icebergs. In attempting to negotiate Shackleton's Bay of Whales, she discovered Amundsen's Pram already established therein. After visiting the rival expedition, her crew decided to report the presence of the Norwegian party to headquarters, and then proceed with the eastern party to Victoria Land. Having carried out this programme the Terra Nova "dipped her ensign and, with three blasts of her whistle in salute, stood away to the northward " for New Zealand.

She returned from New Zealand the following year to collect members of the expedition who were unable to stay a second year in the Antarctic. Later she made her third and last voyage south to bring home the survivors of the party, whose leader sleeps forever amid the eternal snows.

Although Scott's earlier vessel, the Discovery, was not actually constructed by the Stephens, the Firm is closely linked with this famous vessel, as she was built in their old Dundee yard by the Dundee Shipbuilders' Company, which included several of the Firm's old foremen and staff among its shareholders.

Launched in May, 1901, the Discovery was the first ship specially built for Antarctic exploration, her designer being W. E. Smith, C.B., Advising Naval Architect to the Expedition, which was organized by that veteran explorer, Sir Clements Markham, K.C.B. At a preliminary meeting between these gentlemen and Sir Francis Leopold M'Clintock, hero of the Franklin search-party, and Admiral-Superintendent of H.M. Dockyard, Portsmouth, during the fitting out of the old Discovery and Alert for the Nares' expedition of '75, it was decided that a special vessel must be built for the new venture. All earlier Polar voyages had been made in ships adapted for the purpose by structural alterations, but in view of the distant regions into which it was hoped the expedition would penetrate, and the important magnetic work to be undertaken, it was felt that only a specially-planned boat would be worthy of the occasion.

The dimensions of the Discovery were as follows:

Length on the water line: 172 ft.
Breadth, extreme: 34 ft.
Depth amidships: 18 ft.
Mean draught to water line: 16 ft.
Displacement to this water line: 1,620 tons

Among the many special features embodied in the vessel the following are worthy of mention.

MAGNETIC OBSERVATORY. In order that the magnetic work of the Expedition should be of the utmost value, it was decided that the Discovery must be as free as possible from magnetic influence. This was ensured by the exclusion of all iron and steel from a globular space of a radius of 30 ft., whose centre was that of the Magnetic Observatory. Even the iron buttons of the upholstery within the radius were replaced by leaden ones, while the main shrouds had to be hemp cordage and the shrouds were set up by hemp lanyards rove through old-fashioned wooden dead-eyes.

STERN. Though previous Polar vessels and whalers had all shown the old wooden frigate form of square counter stern, Mr. Smith pressed for the adoption of the pronounced overhanging rounded form of stern, which had met with success in the smaller classes of gunboats, claiming that this form would afford better protection to the rudder, rudder-posts and screw in ice-work. After close consideration the committee approved this suggestion, though the innovation met with a great deal of criticism in Dundee, where the experienced whaler-captains were all used to the older form of stern. That the decision was sound, however, is amply proved by the following letter to Mr. Smith, in which Scott says, "The shape of the stern is excellent. In the heaviest following seas it rises quickly and naturally and without risk of 'pooping' as long as the ship has way on. This is naturally the greatest relief to me; there is no more demoralizing circumstance for a helmsman in bad weather than the chance of being 'pooped.'"

RUDDER. Special consideration was given to convenience and certainty in shipping and unshipping the rudder, as delay had been experienced in previous expeditions when the rudder had been put on deck while negotiating heavy ice.

PROPELLER: A two-bladed lifting screw was fitted and special means adopted to facilitate its ready shipping and unshipping.

LABORATORY: A large laboratory-room was constructed and fitted on the lines of that in the famous Challenger.

BILGE KEELS: These were omitted as they would have enhanced the risk of the vessel becoming ice-locked.

Various alterations were naturally made before the plans of the Discovery were finally passed to the builders, the most important being an increase of 10 ft. in length over that of the old Discovery. This increase (only approved after deep discussion, as smaller vessels stand a far better chance in ice-work), rendered many improvements practicable, chief of which was an increase of the I.H.P. from 400 to 450.

ENGINES. Her main engines and boilers were constructed by Messrs. Gourlay Brothers of Dundee, under the direction of Engineer-Commander P. Marrack, R.N. Steam was supplied by two cylindrical boilers, 10 ft. 3 ins. in diameter each, with two furnaces; the combined total grate surface was 67 square feet. Maximum working pressure 15o lbs. per square inch. Her engines were of the triple-expansion type, designed to develop 450 H.P. when working at about 90 revolutions per minute.

It is interesting to recall that the Dundee Shipbuilders' Company was the only firm in the kingdom that displayed a real desire to secure the Discovery contract. In his paper on the vessel, read at the spring meeting of the forty-fifth session of the Institution of Naval Architects, 1905, Mr. Smith paid special tribute to the builders, saying that "they went with great spirit into the question of the alterations of the specifications.

Though Scott was not chosen to command the Discovery until she was well under construction, his notes, written after his appointment, show how closely he followed her progress. He writes: "The art of building wooden ships is now almost lost to the United Kingdom; probably in twenty or thirty years' time a new Discovery will give more trouble and cost more money than a moderate-sized warship. This is natural enough; it is the day of steel, of the puncher and the riveter; the adze and the woodplate are passing away."

The Discovery was later taken over by the Hudson Bay Company, from whom she was purchased in 1923 by the Discovery committee, who refitted her for exploration work connected with the whaling industry. In the course of the work it was found that many timbers had deteriorated and the refit almost amounted to reconstruction. An account of the work done on the ship and the alterations made in her will be found in Discovery Reports, Vol. I, pp. 151-174 (1929). She was engaged in research work in the Atlantic sector of the Antarctic under the scientific leadership of Dr. S. Kemp from 1925 to 1927, and was later chartered to the Commonwealth Government of Australia for the B.A.N.Z. Expedition, under Sir Douglas Mawson. At the present time (1932) she is lying idle, but completely sea-worthy, in the East India Dock, London.

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