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British Industrial History

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Millwall Iron and Shipbuilding Co

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Millwall Iron and Shipbuilding Co

The Millwall yard was originally established by Mr Napier, and after that was used by Mr John Scott Russell from about 1853 for construction of the SS Great Eastern.

c.1858 After Russell and Brunel had given up the site, Mr. Charles John Mare began operations there. In addition to the fitting up of the yard and the engineering shops, Mare added the rolling mills for iron plates and armour, investing about £100,000 in the mill.

Circumstances compelled Mr. Mare to retire, and then a joint stock company, called the Millwall Iron Company, was formed.

c.1861 Rolled iron plates as armour for HMS Warrior

Constructed HMS Northumberland

1864 The business became Millwall Ironworks, Shipbuilding, and Graving Dock Company, Limited and the previous company was wound up[1]. The chief manager was George Harrison. Mr. Hosking (which Hosking?) was chief mechanical engineer.

1866 The Shipbuilding and Graving Dock Co launched the screw steamship Mataura at the Millwall Ironworks. The ship was intended for the New Zealand route. Engines were manufactured by Millwall Iron Co[2].

1864 'RUSSIAN ARMOUR-PLATES. On Saturday the first of a series of enormous iron bars, ordered to be rolled by the Millwall Iron Company for the Russian Government for the construction of a powerful iron fort at Cronstadt, was rolled most successful in the presence of a large number of visitors, and the following account of the manner in which iron-plates are made may be interesting to our readers:-

'It is now some years since efforts have been made to induce our own and various Governments to sanction the adoption of iron instead of granite in important land forts; but it is only recently, and since the construction of the iron-clads have proved the value of the system, that the proposal has been entertained. Armour-plates of immense thickness are now being made Messrs. Brown and Co.’s works, at Sheffield, for the Belgian Government, to be used in the construction of some additional iron defences at Antwerp. France, it is said, intends similar works at all the more important points of Cherbourg’s sea defences, and now Russia has ordered the materials for an iron fort at Cronstadt. The enormous advantages which iron possesses over stone, not alone in its utter impregnability, but in allowing the guns of the widest range while limiting the opening of the embrasure to little more than the width of the muzzle of the ordnance, has long been seen, and the general adoption of iron for land defences has only been checked by the difficulties of manufacturing such enormous masses sound throughout. But with the experience gained in the manufacture of our armour-plates, the great foundries throughout the kingdom are improving every day, and contracts are now eagerly sought for, which, four years ago, every firm would have refused as requiring manufacturing impossibilities.
The bars rolled at these works on Saturday, however, were an advance again upon what has hitherto been done, and the result was looked forward to with some doubt, for each bar when delivered was to weigh six tons, to be 15 inches square, to be tongued and grooved in the rolling, and to be perfect throughout.
The furnaces were opened at 3 o’clock, and the immense mass of metal was drawn forth on an iron truck, heated to a brilliancy that was almost blinding in its intense whiteness, and instantly changing the temperature of the vast factory to a scorching sulphurous heat that was insupportable. Directly it was out, workmen, shielding their faces as they best could, swept the impurities from its surface with long brooms soaked in water, but which, nevertheless, lit like tow the instant they came in contact with the iron, which was sparkling like a gigantic firework. It was then let down the incline to where the rollers, turned by one of the largest fly-wheels in the kingdom — more than 100 tons weight and nearly 40ft. in diameter - was waiting to crush the mass into its required form.
This was the critical moment; for an instant or two the rollers failed to grip it, but at last they caught it, and the whole machinery moved slower, as amid loud cheers from the workmen they began to wind it in. As it was slowly crushed through, the refuse melted iron was squirted out in showers in all directions, and the mass emerged from the rollers on the other side, it lit everything with a bright, lambent flame, said to be caused by the pressure to which the bar was subjected.
This was only the first roll, but it had to be passed through three times to reduce it to its proper thickness. It was not, however, as in the case of ordinary armourplates, a mere question of reduction, these bars have to be rolled, tongued, and grooved to fit into each other. Thus in the rolling they have to overcome all the peculiar difficulties of their construotion almost in two operations, which must be done while the metal is in a half-melted state, or the whole is spoilt. The bars are 15 inches square, but each of these presents a most difficult section. In the first place, the lower part of the bar has a projecting rib, and in the upper part is a groove, corresponding in size with the nib on the lower half, so that the projection of one bar may fit into the groove of the one beneath, thus making a solid dove-tailed wall of iron. Beyond these, also, is rib the back of the bar, formed to dovetail again into projecting masses of iron in the rear supports of the fort, and in the process of rolling all these departures from plain and smooth surface have to be formed and to be formed with so much accuracy that each part fits into the other without the necessity of any machine planing of surfaces.
To give to the mass of metal the required section the rollers of the mill are grooved where the raised surface is required, and sunk to produce the projecting ribs. It took three rolls Saturday before all was finished, and at the completion of each the workmen, who seemed intensely interested in the success of the experiment, cheered loudly. The last operation was effected by lifting the bar into a bed, so speak, made between two masses of iron, and then passing over it an enormous iron roller, which removed the curved form the bar had received in passing between the rollers.
Now that the success of the first bar has been achieved, the rolling of the others will go on every day until the whole order is completed. When the fort is erected in Russia, it is intended to test its powers of resistance with a gun throwing a shot of a thousand pounds weight, which is in a short time to be cast in Prussia for the Imperial Government.'[3]

1866 Company declined when it failed to successfully launch the HMS Northumberland.

1868 'The Largest Flywheel.- The flywheel of the rolling mill of the Millwall Ironworks is 38 ft. in diameter, and weighs (boss, arms and rim) 110 tons, or, with shaft and crank, 125 tons. The mill lately rolled a section of iron weighing 1610 lb. per yard, and of a length of 24 ft.[4]

By 1872 the rolling mills were in the possession of Messrs. Jeavons and Co.

1872 The works had closed and were sold by auction. The yard was occupied by Messrs. Pile and Co., of Great St. Helens[5]

Serious Accident, 1862

'SERIOUS AND FATAL ACCIDENT AT MESSRS. MARE'S IRON WORKS. An accident of a very dangerous, but somewhat unusual character, has recently occurred at the iron ship-building works of Messrs. Mare, at Millwall, endangering the lives of several persons, and now resulting in the death of a lad, named William Henry Dorington.

'It appears that a ponderous fly-wheel of [forty-]five feet in circumference, attached to a powerful engine, used to drive immense machinery for the rolling of iron plates, while revolving rapidly, on last Friday afternoon, suddenly burst asunder, the huge fragments being scattered with frightful force in all directions. The place was instantly enveloped in steam, and the utmost confusion and alarm prevailed, as from the crash of the disruption it was believed that the Catastrophe was much more extensive than it proved to be. The manager of the works was standing within a few yards of the fly-wheel, but escaped unhurt, as did also a workman named Naylor, who escaped being crushed by an enormous fragment by a miracle. When the steam and dust subsided, however, the lad Dorington, who had been seen just previous to the accident raking a furnace-fire, 20 yards off, was found covered with blood, and his thighs shockingly mangled. He was instantly removed to the London Hospital, where he died on Monday.

'Mr. H. Raffles Walthew, the deputy coroner, on Tuesday evening held an inquiry into the circumstances of the occurrence, when the following evidence was given : — Louis Morgan, millwright to the establishment of Messrs. Mare, said that the flywheel in question had been in use about 18 months. It was made on the premises, of cast iron, and was cast in three pieces, which were bolted together. It was about 45 feet in circumference, and was 14 inches in width at the rim, which was 15 inches thick. The wheel had not given at the bolts, and he had made a careful examination without finding any flaw in the iron. He could not account for the catastrophe. Such an accident was uncommon, but there was no guarantee against its taking place with cast iron wheels of such magnitude. Mr. Hughes, the superintendent, said that the machine was made of the best iron. The frost had not got to the wheel, as it was surrounded by the furnace. Every precaution was taken to guard against an accident, which might cause 2000l. worth of damage.

'Verdict— Accidental Death.'[6]

Sale at the Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding Works, 1872


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The London Gazette 30 August 1864
  2. The Engineer 1866/02/23
  3. Illustrated Berwick Journal - Friday 15 April 1864
  4. [1] 'Engineering' 29 May 1868
  5. The Engineer 1872/09/27
  6. London Standard, Thursday 20th November 1862
  • A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering by E. C. Smith. Published 1937