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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Nelson Dock

Nelson Dry Dock and the rear of the Engine Room which houses the machinery that operated the hydraulic slip.

Nelson House 2 Nelson Dry Dock Nelson Dock - Mills and Knight

The rear of Nelson House which fronts onto Rotherhithe Street.  The rear entrance has an elaborate porch which probably opened straight out onto the shipyard.

At the north east of the Rotherhithe peninsula, there is a small collection of buildings, mostly part of the Double Tree by Hilton complex, that escaped demolition in the 1980s. They were refurbished and reconfigured, and are probably in a better condition now than they had been for many years.  Columbia and Canada Wharves are reminders of the wharfinger and warehousing industry of the 19th and 20th centuries and overlook the most visible remaining reminders of the Rotherhithe shipbuilding industry that preceded it  -  the Nelson Dry Dock, it’s Engine House and a large 18th century detached house, home to prosperous shipbuilders.  They reflect a time when the village of Rotherhithe was “principally inhabited by masters of ships, sea-faring men, with artificers and tradesmen depending upon navigation. “ (John Noorthouck, 1773)


Rotherhithe was a centre of shipbuilding since at least the middle ages.  A fleet of 40 large ships under the command of Edward III set sail for France from Rotherhithe, many of the ships had been fitted out in Rotherhithe under the orders of the Black Prince.   Before the construction of the Howland Great Wet Dock (later Greenland Dock) at the turn of the 17th century, the Howland Dry Dock was used for ship-building from 1670.  The Howland Great Wet Dock was built originally as a sheltered location where ships were built, fitted and repaired.  It was owned by the Russell family who had acquired the land it was built on upon the marriage of Elizabeth Howland, a member of the wealthy family who owned the land, to the Duke of Bedford’s grandson as part of her dowry.  The marriage took place in 1695, the groom was 14 years old and the bride was 13, but the happy couple did not co-habit until 1700.  Elizabeth Howland’s grandfather, Sir Josiah Child, was a governor of the East India Company and the Russell family also had strong connections with the Company.  With this kind of influence, the dock received orders for the building of ships from the East India Company together with orders from the Royal Navy, whose dockyard was just a small distance away along the river at Deptford, and other merchants.


The Nelson Dock yard did not acquire that name until the early 19th century, before that time it was referred to as being at Cuckold’s Point.  The dry dock had been constructed by at least 1707 when the warship Dragon underwent rebuilding and enlarging there, a job that would have required a dry dock.  The yard was in use from at least 1690 for shipbuilding and repair, possibly much earlier, and ownership passed sequentially from James Taylor, Taylor and Randall, John Randall, Randall & Brent to S & D Brent in 1814.  Randall & Brent also owned two yards at Greenland Dock and during their ownership of Nelson Dock built 52 warships and 46 East Indiamen and many other ships and repairs that were unrecorded.  S&D Brent (Samuel & Daniel) were taken to court by the government in 1804 for the sub-standard construction of the Ajax, built during their father John Brent’s ownership of the yard who was now retired.  The company suffered considerable damage as a result of the court case and the yard split into two sections, one of which was taken over by  Nelson Wake. It’s likely the yard was named after this Nelson rather than Nelson the national hero (or perhaps, taking advantage of his illustrious namesake, it was the result of some opportunistic marketing on the part of Nelson Wake!)  


Around this time, there was a shortage of timber for ship-building and shipwrights began to use iron in shipbuilding.  The Rotherhithe yards in general were very slow to adopt the use of iron in the construction of ships and its shipbuilding industry began a very slow decline, exacerbated by the Navy ceasing the commissioning warships after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.  With the advent of the Surrey Commercial Docks in Rotherhithe, there was no longer the space in Rotherhithe for the shipyards to expand to cater for iron built ships, land-owners were able to make more money from the leasing of land for wharfs and warehouses.  The last large ship was built in Rotherhithe in 1870.  


Shipwrights continued to repair ships and, from the beginning of the 19th century, carried out ship-breaking at the yards where timbers were salvaged and re-used in the building of new ships or, if the wood was not suitable for this, for house and furniture building.  The Hope (Sufferance) Wharf is one building in Rotherhithe where a former ship’s mast was used in its construction.


The two parts of Nelson Dock were united again in about 1850 when the dock was under the ownership of Bilbe and Perry and reverted once more to ship-building.  Bilbe and Perry were one concern in Rotherhithe who embraced the use of iron in ships, sheathed in copper or Muntz metal that did not attract marine growth that was a problem in the use of iron in building ships.  They produced ships that were fast and considered to be at the high end with demand for opium running and transporting consignments of tea at the beginning of the season.


Bilbe was also responsible for the building of the hydraulic slip in the dry dock whose machinery, replaced in the early 1900s, is housed in the engine house facing on to Rotherhithe Street bearing the painted sign MILLS AND KNIGHT.  Mills and Knight managed the dock from 1890 to 1960 and dealt solely in repairs, in particular for the General Steam Navigation Co based in Deptford.  RYE-ARC acquired the yard in 1960, but despite plans for modernisation, ceased trading in 1968 when it was clear there was no further future for ship repairs in Rotherhithe.  

Nelson House is a unique survivor from the mid 18th century, the only remaining example of the type of house that prosperous owners of shipyards built for themselves in Rotherhithe.  It was probably built for the first John Randall but his son, also called John, who followed him into the business, did not wish to live next to the yard and lived in a smart house near to Hyde Park.  The house was Grade II* listed in 1949 when  it was used as offices.  By 2013, it was in the ownership of the Rich Group (owners of the former Crosse and Blackwell factory) who sold it that year.  The new owners intended to convert it to residential apartments.  

Sources used:

Stuart Rankin (1999) Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe – An Historical Introduction

Stuart Rankin (2004) Maritime Rotherhithe : History Walk B - Shipyards, granaries and wharves.