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British Industrial History

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Alfred Yarrow

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Sir Alfred Fernandez Yarrow (1842-1932) started a shipbuilding dynasty from humble origins in east London.

1842 January 13th. Born in London the son of Edgar William Yarrow and his wife Esther Lindo

1851 Living at 2 Albion Road, Islington: Rebecca Lindo (age 53 born London), Fundholder. With her Brother (in-law) Edgar W. Yarrow (age 46 born (?) Mddx), Merchants Clerk; her sister Hester Yarrow (age 55 born London); and her nephew Alfred L. Yarrow (age 9 born London). Two servants.[1]

Educated at University College School.

1861 Lodging at 6 Lion Row, Clifton, Glos.: Rebecca Lindo (age 63 born London), Fundholder and unmarried. Alfred F. Yarrow (age 19 born London), Pupil Engineer. Isabella Fitzgerald (age 64 born Dublin), Fundholder and unmarried.[2] Note: Lindo is the maiden name of his mother.

1861 He was involved with Yarrow and Hilditch in steam cultivation

1865 He opened a yard - Yarrow and Hedley at Folly Wall, Poplar on the Isle of Dogs in to build steam river launches.

1871 Living at 39 Grosvenor Road, Islington: Esther Yarrow (age 74 born London). With her son Alfred F. Yarrow (age 29 born London), Mechanical Engineer. Also two visitors and two servants.[3]

He ventured into military vessels from the early 1870s, building torpedo boats for the Argentine and Japanese navies, among other customers. Then in 1892 he built the first two destroyers for the Royal Navy: Havock and Hornet of the Havock class.

By this time, the Hedley partnership had been dissolved (1875), and the company was known as Yarrow and Co, and around 1898 moved out of Folly shipyard to the nearby London Yard. It was to be a short-lived move, for less than 10 years later (1906–1908) Yarrow gradually moving his yard northwards to Scotstoun on the banks of the River Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, closing the London shipyard in 1908. An operation in Vancouver, Canada was also started. (Yarrows was later purchased by GEC in 1974; in 2003 it was part of BAe Systems Marine.)

1875 March 24th. Married(1) at Camden to Minnie Florence Franklin (1853-1895). AFY is of 10 Upper Belsize Terrace and an engineer, the son of Edgar William Yarrow, a Gentleman. MFF is the daugfhter of Frank Franklin, a Gentleman.

1881 Living at Ardmore House, Blackheath Park: Alfred Yarrow (age 39 born London), Engineer. With his wife Minnie Yarrow (age 28 born London) and their children Florence Yarrow (age 5 born London); Evelyn Yarrow (age 4 born London); and Ethel Yarrow (age 1 born London). Four servants.[4]

1884 August 11th. Birth of his son Harold Edgar Yarrow

1891 Living at 39 Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead: Alfred Yarrow (age 49 born London), Shipbuilder and Employer. With his wife Minnie Yarrow (age 38 born London) and their children Ethel Yarrow (age 11 born London) and Harold Yarrow (age 6 born London). One visitor and seven servants.[5]

Living at Woodlands House, Mycenae Road, Westcombe Park for some years from 1896.

1904 'YARROW, A. F., M.I.C.E., Yarrow Shipbuilding Works, Poplar, London, E. Car: 7-h.p. Panhard. Has been interested horseless vehicles for over forty years. Is head of the well-known Poplar firm of shipbuilders, who construct torpedo boats, destroyers, launches, and water-tube boilers. Club: A.C.G.B & I. (Club Committee).' [6]

1909 Naval architect of Campsie Dene, Blanefield, Stirlingshire.[7]

1911 A visitor at the Cecil Hotel, Strand, London: A. Yarrow (age 69 born London), a Shipbuilder.[8]

Knighted in 1916, Sir Alfred displayed extensive philanthropic tendencies throughout his later years, donating towards: a convalescent home on the Isle of Dogs for the benefit of children; residences for soldiers' widows in Hampstead Garden Suburb (the Barnett Homestead, Erskine Hill); a school, Bearwood College, in Berkshire; a home and hospital for children in Broadstairs, Kent; a scholarship at University College London; and medical research at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, among other noble causes. He also left a bequest to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

1922 Married(2) to Eleanor Cecilia Barnes

1932 January 24th. Died

Probate. Of Green meadows, Goodworth, Clatford, Hampshire who died 24th January 1932 at the Savoy Hotel, Strand. Probate to Eleanor Cecilia Yarrow, widow, and two others.

1903 Bio Note [9]

YARROW, A. F.- Born in 1842, and educated at University College School, London, Mr. Yarrow entered the works of Messrs. Ravenhill and Salkeld, marine engineers, Stepney, where he served his time. He first took an interest in self-propelled vehicles as early as forty years ago. He started in business at Poplar on his own account at the age of twenty-four, and has been constructing there launches, torpedo boats, destroyers, other vessels, and water-tube boilers ever since. Since the passing of the 1896 Act, Mr. Yarrow has renewed his interest in self-propelled vehicles, and now owns a 7 h.p. Panhard car.

1932 Obituary [10]

ALFRED FERNANDEZ YARROW was born in London on January 13th, 1842. He had, therefore, reached the advanced age of ninety years at the time of his death on January 24th. His father, Mr. Edgar Yarrow, had married Esther Lindo, the daughter of his employer, a West India merchant and a Jew, and to his Jewish descent Sir Alfred frequently attributed the talents with which he was abundantly endowed. He was educated, first, at a small school at Holloway, then at a boarding school at Reigate, and finally at university College School.

At the age of fifteen and a-half he was apprenticed with the firm of Messrs. Ravenhill, whose business consisted almost entirely of the construction of marine engines for naval vessels. Whilst there, young Yarrow further extended his experience by spending his Saturday afternoons at the establishment of a jobbing smith, since the apprentices at Ravenhill's were not permitted to enter the smiths' shop. He also attended every scientific lecture for which tickets could be obtained, and in 1859, when in his eighteenth year, he, with a few others, founded a society - the Civil and Mechanical Engineers' Society - for the reading and discussion of papers on engineering and kindred subjects. The Society first met in Albert-square, Stepney, and later in Cheapside and at the Freemasons' Hall, with, at one time, the late Dr. Maw as its President.

On the completion of his apprenticeship, Yarrow, who was then twenty-one years of age, naturally looked about for work. An offer made by Messrs. Ravenhill of a post in their drawing-office at a salary of £100 a year was refused. The young man was at the time receiving small sums in royalties, payments for drawings and designs, in fees for inspections, &c., and his main ambition was to obtain sufficient capital to launch inventions, about some of which we shall speak immediately, and to fit, up and open a small work, in which he could execute any orders that he might obtain. At a time when he did not know in which direction to look for the necessary financial assistance he quite unexpectedly received a present of £200 from a maiden aunt, Miss Amelia Yarrow, and a further contribution - even more unlooked for - of £200 from a coloured planter in the West Indies, who had been acquainted with his father in Jamaica, and who sent the present, to help in starting the son in life. Mr. Ellis, the underwriter, whose lectures he had attended, also unexpectedly came forward with an offer of £1000, or, if that were not enough, £2000 to help to start the workshop. Although the last-named generous offer was not actually taken advantage of, it was most gratefully acknowledged, and it materially assisted in stimulating the young man's efforts.

About the same time, too, Messrs. Coleman, agricultural engineers, of Chelmsford, determined to take up the manufacture and sale of a steam plough which had been patented, between the years 1860 and 1862, by Yarrow in conjunction with Hilditch. The Colchester firm opened an office in London for the purpose of pushing the business and agreed to pay Yarrow a salary of £100 a year for looking after it. The royalties on the plough patent amounted in a few years to some £600, which the inventors divided between them. During the time that Yarrow was in charge of the office in London he added to his income by the preparation of working drawings for all kinds of machinery and by acting as inspecting engineer for commercial firms. He also had occasionally to give evidence in court on technical subjects.

About that time, too, he, again in collaboration with Hilditch, designed and patented a steam carriage for use on ordinary roadways. The invention was taken up by a Mr. T. W. Cowan, of Greenwich, who agreed to pay a royalty on the vehicles constructed. One was built and plied between Greenwich and Bromley - a distance of 10 miles - once a week late in the evening for a short time. This steam carriage was shown at the International Exhibition of 1862, where it attracted a good deal of attention. It did not, however, receive any award for the somewhat peculiar reason that, though the jury deputed to deal with engines considered the exhibit to be a Carriage the jury which had to do with carriages regarded it as an engine! The vehicle therefore fell between two stools, though both juries wrote to Yarrow and Hilditch stating that they had closely inspected the carriage and that if it had come within their range they would certainly have made an award in its favour. That, however, was but cold comfort, and, on the whole, the attempt to introduce self-propelled steam vehicles on common roadways may be looked upon as Yarrow's few failures.

At the end of two years in charge of Coleman's London office, Yarrow found himself in possession of a capital of about £1,000, and he felt that the time had come when he could safely set up in business for himself. For this purpose he entered into partnership with a Mr. Hedley, he hoped, would have influence in obtaining orders to repair river steamboats. Mr. Hedley had no capital in the concern. A small works on the Folly Wall, in the Isle of Dogs, consisting of a couple of old cottages and a few broken-down sheds, was acquired. A few shipbuilding tools, which had been the property of a former tenant, were rented with the place and put in working order and a small machine shop was built. For the first year or so only a few small orders were booked. The work undertaken was of a most varied character. So far from its being entirely confined to the repair of river craft, as had been intended, it comprised such diverse things as the construction of a thief-proof door to a safe in a jeweller's shop at Brighton; the fitting of an iron crane-chain-fending roller over a doorway in Southwark; the making and fitting of some overhead travelling pans in a sugar factory; an apparatus for roasting coffee; some match-making machinery; the repair of a boiler in a jam factory, &c. That first year was a period of great anxiety. During it, and for some time thereafter, Yarrow himself made all the drawings, kept the books, paid the wages, and looked about for orders while Hedley's business was to see to the carrying out of the work.

The second year was even more unprofitable than the first. With the object of extending the scope of their operations, the two members of the firm endeavoured to secure work on a larger scale. The result was disastrous, for at the end of the year their books showed a deficit of £2,000. At that period Yarrow's father wanted him to give in and go through the Bankruptcy Court, but his mother, who had unbounded faith in him, encouraged him to go on and he complied with her wishes.

As a matter of fact, the time was at turning point in the firm's career. While still at Ravenhill's, Yarrow and Hilditch had built a small steam launch called the "Isis," which had proved a source of great enjoyment to the two lads, and, when seeking about in every direction to find something which might result in profit, Yarrow - at the time when his fortune seemed at the lowest ebb - suddenly had the idea that the building of small steam launches for use on the river might be successful financially. He accordingly inserted an advertisement in the papers, and three days afterwards received an order from a Colonel Halpin for a 24ft. steam launch with a cabin to accommodate four passengers. The price was to be £145, and the boat, which took three months to build, actually cost £200. However, the little craft was a great success. At the end of the summer, Yarrow bought her back for £100 and sold her the same day for £200. At the end of the next summer he again purchased her for £100 and sold her for £300 to a Russian who took her to St. Petersburg. Thus, although the boat was built at a loss, the firm did very well out of her after all. In fact, if the original loss had not been made good, her construction would have been well worth the while, for she proved to be the basis on which was erected one of the most extensive and noteworthy businesses concerned with the design and building of fast steamships of all types - particularly torpedo craft and vessels for pioneer and general navigation on shallow rivers - that the world has known.

For seven years after the first launch was turned out the building of similar craft was continued without a pause, and the initial mistake of to the cost of construction was not again made. Up to the end of 1875 no fewer than 350 steam launches, their prices varying from £140 to £2,000, were built.

Just prior to his first marriage in 1875 it had become evident to Yarrow that his partnership with Hedley did not work as smoothly as he could have wished, and the partnership was dissolved, Hedley drawing out of the business a large sum of money on condition that he would not enter into active competition with his former partner. Incidentally, it may be recorded t hat Hedley did not fulfil his part of the bargain. He bought a yard about a quarter of a mile away from the establishment on Folly Wall and started a small business on his own account. It failed however, and he lost all his money. Yarrow's business, on the contrary, continued to thrive, and he soon got together a small but thoroughly reliable staff, so that the loss of his partner rapidly ceased to be felt.

In addition to steam launches for river and similar navigation, the building of special craft for particular services was undertaken. Among the first, of them was the “1lala” designed for plying on lake Nyassa and among the sand-banks and rocks of the Zambesi, for use in the suppression of the slave trade in East Africa. It was necessary that the vessel should be seaworthy and capable of steaming against a swift current, and that she should he built light sections which could be disconnected at will and carried many miles through forests when rapids were encountered. The little boat was a great success and was followed by the "Pioneer," the "Adventure," and the "Dove," which were ordered by the British Admiralty. The last-named was propelled by side paddle-wheels and only drew 8in. of water, and may be regarded as the ancestor of a long line of a variety of special vessels, particularly those for navigation on rivers abounding in shoals and rapids which were designed and built by Yarrow at various periods, some of which had stern wheels and some side wheels.

Later, in 1883, he designed and built to the order of the King of the Belgians, who had acquired the services of Mr. Stanley to explore the Congo, a special vessel fur that purpose. The boat was hull up of sections, which were themselves floating and which, while afloat, could be joined together by bolts and nuts so as to form a complete vessel. To get over the difficulty of the sections tending to sink when water entered them through the bolt holes, a vertical plate, of such a height that even when the water got in it, could not rise in the section above the level of the plate, was arranged parallel with and a short distance away from the bulkhead. The distance apart of the bulkhead and plate was sufficient to permit the hands of the men tightening the nuts to be inserted. As soon as the bolting up was finished the water was pumped from the space between the two plates. When it was desired to transport the sections over land, wheels were passed under and attached to each section while it was afloat, so that, actually, the sections were transformed into wagons which could be drawn along. "Le Congo," as the vessel was called, which was propelled by a stern wheel, was a great success, and as a consequence of the adoption of this method of construction a number of similar vessels were ordered from the firm.

At an earlier period of Yarrow's history - namely in March, 1874 - "Chinese Gordon," before proceeding on his first mission to Khartoum, asked him to call on him so that he might obtain the fullest particulars as to the type of vessel which might prove most useful on the Nile. In view of the prevalence of the masses of floating vegetation or "Sudds" in that river, Yarrow came to the conclusion that screw propulsion was out of the question, and decided to adopt a stern wheel, and he got out a design of boat which could be shipped in sections, each of which was light enough to be carried on a camel's back. Nothing further was heard of the matter for many months, and then the Governor of the Equatorial Provinces was commissioned by Gordon to order from Yarrow four steamers which should be built to the designs submitted at the interview above recorded. The vessels were made, sent out to Khartoum, and put together on the banks of the Nile. They were subsequently used in the defence of Khartoum and were sent down the Nile to meet the relief expedition under Lord Wolseley.

Mention may here be made, too, of the "hinged-flap" method of screw propulsion, which was adapted by Yarrow successfully to certain shallow-draught river steamers intended to operate under special conditions of navigation. Among the vessels which were designed and constructed by him to work on that method were the two gunboats "Sultan" and "Sheik", which were used by Lord Kitchener in 1897 in the recapture of Khartoum.

It would be impossible in such a memoir as the present to refer to every one of the other numerous and varied craft which were designed and constructed by Yarrow during his long career. Reference may, however, be made to the stern-wheeler which was built for the King of Burma in 1876; to the early battery-operated electric launch which was built in collaboration with Messrs. Siemens in 1883; to the stern-wheeler which was built for service on the Alto Uruguay River; to the shallow-draught gunboats "Mosquito" and "Herald" built for service on the Zambesi, which were delivered in the short space of twenty-five days from the receipt of the order; and to the shallow-draught stern-wheeler gunboat "Opale," ordered by the French Government for service in Dahomey. As a change from steam propulsion it may be recorded that a small yacht built by Yarrow and driven by internal combustion engines figured prominently on the Solent during Cowes Week in August, 1906. This little vessel had a flat bottom and developed a high speed of travel.

The types of high-speed vessels with which the name of Yarrow is more particularly identified by the general public, however, are torpedo-boats and destroyers - to give them their shortened title. The firm's connection with torpedoes began in the year 1873, when Yarrow mounted a torpedo spar on one of his fast launches. The first launches specially designed by him to carry torpedoes were ordered by the Argentine Government. They measured 55ft. in length and were followed by one of 75ft. for the Dutch Government. That was the beginning, and during the two years 1877 and 1879 orders were received for torpedo craft from the Argentine, Austrian, Chilian, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Spanish Governments.

The first Yarrow torpedo-boat to be ordered by the British Government was known as the "Admiralty Sample Boat." She was frankly regarded by the authorities as, to a certain extent, an experiment. A similar order was given to any firm which was considered to possess a reasonable prospect of carrying out the work successfully. Each firm had to guarantee under penalty a speed of 18 knots. Actually, the Yarrow boat attained a speed of 21.9 knots, which is said to have been 3 knots in excess of the highest speed attained by any competitive vessel tested under the same conditions. Yarrow was always persuaded of the great importance attaching to research and experiment, and the abnormal speed reached by the vessel is reported to have been mainly due to some interesting experiments which were carried out by the firm in connection with propellers. Up to that time, it had been generally believed that, for boats of the type, a propeller 5ft. 6in. in diameter, with narrow blades, gave the highest efficiency. It was also thought that, within a certain limit, the larger the propeller and the greater the area of water acted upon, the less would be the slip and the better the result. Acting on this supposition, Yarrow tried fitting a propeller 6ft. 6in. in diameter, with the unexpected result that only a considerably reduced speed could he reached. That discovery led to the carrying out of an extensive series of tests with twenty-five propellers of different diameters, pitches and areas and with two and three blades. As the outcome of these investigations a propeller only 4ft. 4in. in diameter and with three blades was found to operate most efficiently, the speed attained being greatly enhanced as compared with that reached by the larger propeller, in spite of the fact that the slip was increased.

In 1877 the Russian Government ordered two torpedo boats from Messrs. Yarrow, but, in consequence of the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, these vessels were not allowed to leave this country and were acquired by the British Admiralty. The terms of payment stipulated for a heavy penalty if at speed of 18 knots were not reached. Yarrow agreed, on the condition that a similar premium was granted for anything above that speed being achieved. Actually, the two vessels made 20.8 and 20.6 knots respectively, and the Admiralty had to pay £1,900 in excess of the price at which the two boats wore offered to it, and which at the time it had declared excessive. These two boats figured at a review of the Fleet held in the Solent in 1878, when they created a good deal of sensation. Commenting on the matter at the time, The Times remarked: "One of the features of the Review was the performance of two long, double-funnel torpedo-boats built by Yarrow, which have realised the extraordinary speed of 21 knots. The manner in which these malevolent-looking craft rushed up and down the lines and round the ships was the astonishment of all beholders."

These two little vessels, which the late Queen Victoria, who had seen them operate, declared had interested her more than anything else at the Review, were instrumental in first bringing Yarrow's name prominently before the public. Just previously, one hundred torpedo-boats had been built in Russia to Yarrow's designs. They were fitted with locomotive boilers using forced draught. In the spring of 1892 Yarrow, having paid a visit to some of the French shipyards, where he had seen some exceptionally fast torpedo-boats under construction, called at the British Admiralty to lay certain facts before Admiral Sir John Fisher, and to offer to build boats which would he superior to those of the French. He was asked to make a report on the subject, and as a result suggested the construction of boats 180ft. long by 18ft. beam and having engines of 4,000 H.P. The new craft were to be designated "Destroyers," their office being to chase and destroy torpedo-boats, their speed being greater, and their firmament heavier. Two vessels of this typo were ordered - the "Havock" and the "Hornet" - and they reached speeds on official trial of 26.1 and 27.3 knots respectively. The higher speed of the "Hornet" was attributed to her being fitted with Yarrow water-tube boilers, she being the first vessel in the British Navy to have boilers of that type. The fact that, for a given speed, the "Hornet," which had a displacement of 11 tons less than the "Havock" - owing to the less weight of her boilers - had a coal consumption 5 per cent. less than that of the "Havock" indicated the superior efficiency of the water-tube boiler as compared with the locomotive type.

Yarrow was confident that even the high speeds reached by these two vessels could be improved upon if only material of a higher tensile strength than mild steel were to be used in the construction of the hull. He accordingly obtained from the Russian Government an order to build a vessel - to he known as the "Sokol" - which he guaranteed should reach a speed of 30 knots. The material which he used for the hull was called "Yolla" metal - a nickel steel - which had a tensile strength of 35 tons per square inch, as compared with the 28 tons of mild steel.

Yarrow began his investigations into water-tube boilers in 1877, but it was ten years later before he put one of his boilers in a torpedo-boat, and another five years went, by before, as we have seen, there was a Yarrow boiler in the British Navy. The Yarrow boiler proved to be a great success and it was soon adopted by the navies of several countries.

Thirty years or more ago Yarrow began seriously to consider the transfer of his works on the Thames to some other locality. Economic conditions in the Metropolis were making it increasingly difficult to carry on business there. He felt, however, that it would be a severe wrench to tear himself away from a spot which he had occupied for so long, and from works which he had seen grow from quite small beginnings. But owing to the Socialistic tendency of municipal government in the district, the rates and cost of living in the Isle of Dogs were continually rising. Consequently, apart, from the direct expenses in connection with the works, the rates of wages were higher than those paid for equally efficient labour in the provinces. Hence it was ultimately decided to transfer the works "lock, stock and barrel" to the Clyde. The removal was carried out with characteristic vigour and celerity. Between 4,000 and 5,000 tons had to be transported, including the most delicate models and the heaviest machine tools. Everything went by rail. Shipbuilding was started on the Clyde within a few months of turning the first sod, and, concurrently, the construction of machinery was carried on at Poplar until the last moment. The feu contract for the Scotstoun yard was signed on February 24th, 1906, and the first destroyer was launched on July 14th, 1908. The removal, which has been referred to as a stroke of genius, amply repaid by the results achieved the thought, labour and money spent upon it.

Towards the end of 1913, when he was seventy-two years of age, Yarrow left Scotland to reside in the South of England, and thus ceased to be in personal touch with the works. He continued, however, to retain control of the firm's operations, leaving his eldest son Harold in full charge. He considered it impossible completely to retire at a period when he felt so full of life and energy, and he determined to keep well informed as to everything that was going on by interchange of visits, by daily telephone conversations, and by written communications. He went on a journey through Canada with his second son Norman, which resulted in the founding of a branch establishment of the firm at Victoria, British Columbia, of which Mr. Norman Yarrow is in charge.

Then, in August of the following year, came the Great War, and Yarrow, with apparently renewed youth and vigour, plunged into all the work which was possible for him to do. No less than twenty-nine destroyers left the Scotstoun yard during the war period. Twenty-seven of them were for the British Navy, one for Japan, and one for Italy. Just before the outbreak of war, Yarrow had approached the then First Lord - Mr. Winston Churchill - and promised, if an order for three destroyers were given to him, that they should be improvements on the "Lurcher" class, and should be the fastest ships afloat. The order was given and the "Miranda," "Minos," and "Manly" delivered after the war began, developed speeds of about two knots faster than those of the "Lurcher" type. Later the "Tyrian," which could steam 1,000 knots without refuelling, very nearly reached 40 knots when fully equipped. In addition to the destroyers several other vessels of quite a different type were produced.

The construction of warships, however, by no means represented all that Sir Alfred did or devised during the war period. For example, he converted the Convalescent Home for Children at Broadstairs - about which we speak later - into a well-equipped military hospital; made several minor inventions of use to the Forces in the trenches; and undertook the manufacture of artificial limbs.

We have already referred to Sir Alfred's belief in research work, and a tangible example of his desire to assist it financially was the experimental tank at Bushey, which he gave the funds to build. He had often been puzzled by conflicting speed results, which were experienced with high-speed vessels carried out under, apparently, identical conditions. The variations in speed were for a long time unaccountable and mysterious, but Sir Alfred, being determined to get to the bottom of the matter, carried out a series of exhaustive experiments with a fast destroyer. The tests were made with the same vessel, the same crew, the same displacement, on the same day and at various speeds, so that, as far as possible, varying conditions, which might lead to discrepancies, might be eliminated. These trials led to results of exceptional value. It was found that the longitudinal inclination of a vessel with a given number of revolutions of her engine depended upon the depth of water under the hull, when running at a speed of 20 knots or over, and that fictitious speeds, in excess of the true speed in deep water, could he obtained if the water were shallow.

At the same time, Sir Alfred had corresponding trials made with models - which amply confirmed the results obtained with a destroyer - but those trials had to be carried out by foreigners, since there was no tank available for making them in this country. He therefore determined to obtain for Great Britain an experimental tank which might be available for research work. He found, however, that the shipbuilders and ship owners would not sufficiently co-operate, and the necessary sum of money to build such a tank was not forthcoming. Deeming it hopeless to look for assistance from those directions or from the Government, he decided to finance the proposal himself and ultimately made to the Royal Society an offer to build a tank at an estimated cost of £20,000, provided that a similar amount, sufficient to cover the working expenses for ten years, was guaranteed. The offer was accepted and the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington was chosen as a suitable place for the tank, which was opened on July 5th, 1911, during the jubilee meetings of the Institution of Naval Architects in London. There is no need for us to lay stress on the enormous value of the results which have been achieved by its means.

Having during the course of his long and successful business career amassed a fortune of no inconsiderable magnitude, Sir Alfred set about, most generously, to distribute it during his lifetime, and no memoir, such as the present, would be complete without some reference to his munificence in this direction. In his benefactions he always bore in mind a saying of his friend, the late Canon Barnett, namely, that it was difficult to make money honestly, but far more difficult to spend it wisely. It would be impossible, of course, to put on record all the examples of generosity that he showed during his lifetime; some of them never became known, but some of them were world-famous. Every engineer, for example, has heard of the Convalescent Home for Children which he founded at Broadstairs. This Home, which was intended for the reception of some 100 children, the sons and daughters of educated people who might he unable to afford the full expense of a stay at the seaside, so necessary for recovery after illness or an operation, was endowed to the utmost limit that was deemed to he wise. Again, he gave to t he London Hospital a sum of £25,000, on condition that a sufficient sum should be subscribed in addition to that amount to build and equip an out-patients' department - a condition which was realised, and the building was opened by the late King Edward in 1903. Further, the sum of £20,000 was in 1908 given by Sir Alfred to the same hospital to found a research fund. When the firm migrated to Scotland he gave £24,000 to be used partly in adding to the Nurses' Training Home at Govan and partly in grants for establishing such nurses in the isolated Highlands and islands of Scotland. He also financed and liberally endowed a Girls' School for Domestic Service at Chislehurst. After a visit to Girton College, Cambridge, he decided that a debt of £24,000, which had been incurred by that institution, must he paid off, and offered, anonymously, that if £12,000 could he collected in three months to make up the balance. The sum was duly subscribed. He also gave a further £10,000 to the College to aid students in research work. A much larger gift was the £100,000 which Sir Alfred presented in 1923 to the Royal Society - of which he had been made Fellow in 1922 - the income to be used for assistance to distinguished men engaged in research, so that their entire time might ho available for their investigations. He also made a further gift to the Royal Society so that if any of his descendants, during a period of fifty years, were short of funds for education, the Society could, at its discretion, provide additional means. Finally, reference may be made to the £20,000 which he presented in 1926 to the British Association, the capital sum and the interest on it to he devoted to the advancement of science, a condition being that the amount should be exhausted by yearly payments spread over a period of twenty years.

In the foregoing brief summary of the life story of Sir Alfred Yarrow much has, of necessity, been omitted. It lies been impossible, for instance, to review his feelings regarding education - especially the education of young engineers - which were of a clearly defined character, and in which he was by no means always in agreement with other educationalists. Nor has space permitted the giving an account of his feelings for and treatment of his employees, of his attitude during the engineers' strike of 1897, nor of the campaign to disseminate propaganda in neutral countries during the war. We have, we hope, however, said enough to give some idea of the general direction, taken by the numerous activities of this very remarkable man, in which he was engaged throughout the whole of a lifetime that was extended far beyond the usual limit. He was created a baronet in 1916.

It only remains to say that after the death of his first wife Sir Alfred married, in 1922, Miss Eleanor Barnes, the daughter of a life-long friend of his first wife. Lady Yarrow, who had for years acted as his confidential secretary, survives him. To her book, "Alfred Yarrow: His Life and Work" (Arnold), we are indebted for much of the information given in this memoir.

1932 Obituary [11]

Sir ALFRED FERNANDEZ YARROW, Bart., an Honorary Life Member of the Institution since 1916, was justly one of the great figures of the engineering profession. At the advanced age of 90 years, at which he died on 24th January 1932, his memory of early days of engineering progress extended further than most men's, but he looked back on them not merely as one who had seen the beginnings of noteworthy developments, but as one who had taken, entirely on his own initiative, a leading part in them. For he founded the great firm which bears his name in the most modest circumstances, with nothing more than his own outstanding talent as an advantage. This talent he had already displayed at an early age by taking out a number of patents in conjunction with a boy named Hilditch, the most notable of which were connected with improvements in ploughing machinery, which were most successful in manufacture. The two also installed between their homes the first overhead telegraph line in London, and presently interested themselves in the use of steam on roads.

In 1861 some machines were built to their design by the late Mr. T. W. Cowan at Greenwich. At this time also they founded in conjunction with other young engineers of their acquaintance, a Civil and Mechanical Engineers Society, of which Mr. Yarrow was the first vice-president.

The founding of the firm of Yarrow took place on the departure of Hilditch to join his father in the north, Mr. Yarrow establishing, in conjunction with Mr. Medley, a small works on the Isle of Dogs, Poplar, for the repair of boats. At first progress was disheartening, but Mr. Yarrow's confidence, ability, and energy were unabated, and presently the firm established a name as builders of steam-launches.

During the seven years of partnership with Mr. Hedley some 350 boats of various types and sizes had been built. Mr. Medley retired from the partnership in 1875.

In 1876 the first specially designed torpedo boat was built for the Argentine, and this event, together with the construction of a shallow-draught vessel for the Nyassa Mission, marked the beginning of that great development in shipbuilding which the firm's activities subsequently brought about. Amongst the most notable features of that development were the careful speed trials and towing experiments which Sir Alfred Yarrow was one of the first to carry out, the introduction of the Yarrow-Schlick-Tweedy system of balancing for high-speed reciprocating engines, and the development of the Yarrow straight-tube water-tube boiler. The works were moved from Poplar to the Clyde in 1907.

Sir Alfred had retired from active control of his business some years before the War, but upon its outbreak resumed his participation in its affairs and was awarded a baronetcy for the invaluable services which he was able to render in the design and production of vessels urgently needed. His many gifts included a sum of £100,000 presented to the Royal Society, of which he was made a Fellow in 1922, for the foundation of research professorships, a sum of £20,000 towards the construction of the National Tank at Teddington, and a sum of £10,000 to the British Association. He was first elected a Member of the Institution in 1889.

He was also a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and a Vice-President of the Institution of Naval Architects in 1896.

1932 Obituary [12]

SIR ALFRED YARROW, Bart., an Original Member of the Institute, died at the age of 90, on January 25, 1932.

He early betrayed his inventive genius when at 8 years, he designed an automatic wool winder, then a self-acting candle extinguisher and a clock worked by weights. He was educated at University College School and in 1857 was apprenticed to makers of engines for warships until he reached the age of 21. During this period he attended as many science lectures as possible, and continued to study at University College, where he was a fellow-student of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.

On the death of his father, he was left without means, and was unable to market inventions which he had patented, until friends and relations supplied the sum of £400. He invented the steam plough, and a steam carriage which, however, was not permitted to be used unless preceded by a man carrying a red flag.

The capital derived from the royalties on the first of these inventions enabled him to open an engineering works on the Thames at the Isle of Dogs in 1866, but it fared badly until he began to build small steam launches. He mounted the first torpedo tube in 1873, thus creating the first torpedo boat, which he followed by the torpedo boat destroyer in 1892.

He was created a baronet in 1916. Sir Alfred Yarrow was one of the most charitable of men, and gave large sums to the Out-Patients Department of the London Hospital, and also for training nurses and for the building of a convalescent home at Broadstairs. His interest in learning is shown by the donation of £100,000 to the Royal Society - devoted to founding research professorships - and £20,000 towards the building of a testing tank for naval construction at the National Physical Laboratory. This was opened in 1911. He was also a generous benefactor to Girton College, Cambridge.

In 1913 he retired to Hampshire, but resumed his work at the outbreak of war, during which period he built twenty-nine destroyers in his yard at Scotstoun, to which he was forced to move in 1906 owing to the high cost of production on the Thames. Sir Alfred Yarrow took up flying late in life, and went for a tour of Europe by air only last year.

1932 Obituary [13]

1932 Obituary[14]


Seldom is so large a circle of engineers affected by tbe loss of one of their number as is the case, this week, through the death of Sir Alfred Yarrow, on Sunday last, at the good age of ninety. Known throughout the world for his engineering work, and the products of his firm, his circle of friends was greatly extended by his kindly nature, and by the very liberal use of the wealth which came to him as a result of his success in business.

Born in London, Alfred Fernandez Yarrow was associated with engineering from his early years. His first schoolmaster pronounced him to have a talent for this profession, and after years gave ample proof of the correctness of this estimate. At the age of 13 he was sent to University College School, and there formed friendships which were lifelong. An opportunity occurred, when he was 15, for him to be apprenticed to Messrs. Ravenhill, Salkeld and Company, marine engine builders, Glasshouse Fields, and here he went through the usual thorough practical training given to a youth in those days, supplementing his shop work, outside working hours, with study and work in a workshop of his own. During his school days, one of his great friends was a boy named James Hilditch, also of a mechanical turn of mind. The two definitely joined forces in taking out a number of patents, the most notable of which were connected with improvements in ploughing machinery.

They also installed between their homes the first overhead telegraph line in London. The ploughing system proved very successful, the plant being made by Messrs. Coleman and Sons, of Chelmsford, under licence. Later, Yarrow became London representative of this firm.

Among other activities of this period, Yarrow and Hilditch interested themselves in the use of steam on roads. In 1861, their invention was taken up by the late T. W. Cowan, at Greenwich, some account of experiences with the machines being given in our columns about five years ago. At this time it may also be recorded that these young men,, with other enthusiasts, founded a Civil and Mechanical Engineers Society, numbering about 30. Of this, Yarrow was the first vice-president, while the late Dr. W. H. Maw, Editor of this Journal, was honoured by being chosen one of the early presidents. On Hilditch being called by his father to join him in the north of England, Yarrow cast about for works of his own, finally going into partnership with Mr. Hedley and starting small works on the Isle of Dogs, Poplar.

The development of this business, after a most disheartening start, into one of the most famous firms of the world, is a fascinating story, for which, unfortunately, the space at our disposal is sadly inadequate.

Yarrow never spared himself, and with boundless energy, confidence and acumen, went from one success to another, tackling each major problem as it arose in a way which practically compelled success, and carried the ait a stage further, not only for himself, but for the whole profession.

His interest at first was mainly the repair of river craft, but he soon took up the improvement of steam launches and developed a good business in this line. Alter a first order completed at a loss, but turned into a profit by the double re-purchase and re-sale of the little craft, orders began to come in, and though in a small way, the firm was on the road to success. The partnership with Hedley was terminated in 1875, but in the seven preceding years some 350 boats had been built of various types and sizes. It is impossible to detail the developments of the period.

Yarrow’s first specially-designed torpedo boat was built in 1876 for the Argentine and was followed by a larger boat for Holland; the next year saw two constructed for Russia, two for Greece, three for the Admiralty, and two for France.

The great place which the firm acquired in connection with the construction of craft for inland and shallow waters developed from a first order for a shallow and easily transportable vessel for the Nyassa Mission. This was followed by shallow-draught gun boats for the same lake, sent out in sections of easily transportable size. Boats were also built for the Congo and the Nile and sent out in floatable sections.

The size, power and speed of torpedo boats steadily increased. In 1878, two torpedo boats, originally built for Russia, but taken over by the British Admiralty, attained a speed of 21 knots at a review at Spitflead. In 1880, 22 knots was exceeded with a boat for Russia. By 1892 the speed had risen in the case of the Hornet, with water-tube boilers, to 27-3 knots, although a sister vessel, the Havock, with locomotive-type boilers, only reached 26*1. The difference resulted in the adoption of water-tube boilers as a definite policy. The Sokol, built for Russia in 1894, attained a speed of 30 knots, and thereafter speeds steadily rose with later developments, the Lurcher reaching over 35 knots in 1912, while towards the close of the war the Tyrian came within a fraction ot 40 knots.

The improvements which Yarrow effected, making his advances possible, were in form, material and in propelling machinery. He was one of the first to carry out careful speed trials and to supplement these by towing experiments. He early adopted mild steel, which, when introduced, enabled him to cut down the thickness of plating from J in. and $ in. to A in., and, later, high-tensile steel, and also aluminium. In connection with the high-speed reciprocating engine, his name will always be associated with the method of balancing now known as the Yarrow-Schlick-Tweedy system. The development of the Yarrow straight tube water-tube boiler is too well known to need extended reference. The Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects abound with data submitted by Mr. Yarrow, either in the form of papers by himself or contributions of value to disoussions. No member gave more freely of the facts which his work had brought to light.

His work in connection with shallow draught vessels would take long to recapitulate. He was responsible for notable sternwheelers, and also developed the tunnel and flap method of propulsion used, with great success in shallow waters. Some of the firm’s most notable work during the war was the design and construction of shallow draught gunboats for the Tigris, put together at Abadan.

These boats proved of immense service, and equally successful hospital boats were also furnished.

It is quite impossible to detail the story of all the successes of Mr. Yarrow’s firm, or, indeed, to give any adequate sketch of the man himself. A hard worker, he .believed in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage. Consequently, when labour costs and troubles increased in the London area, he decided upon moving his Poplar works to the Clyde. The transfer was effected in 1907, and the first destroyer launched from the new yard in 1908. After some years in the north, Mr. Yarrow settled down in Hampshire, but on the war breaking out, returned at once to active participation in affairs, and rendered invaluable service both in the matter of design and also actual production of vessels urgently needed, notably the shallow-draught gunboats already mentioned. For his services he was awarded a baronetcy in 1916.

Sir Alfred was generous with the wealth which his industry enabled him to accumulate, and he enjoyed making use of the surplus, over and above his requirements, in philanthropic ways, contending that a man derived most satisfaction from such action during life. With this end, he endowed the Convalescent Home at Broadstairs, for children, the outcome, it may be mentioned, of a remark made to him some time previously by Dr. Barnardo. The home, as is known, is for the children of well-educated people of limited means. It is managed by the Institution of Civil Engineers, as trustees. He was a very liberal benefactor of the London Hospital, the Nurses Training Home, Govan, and many other causes, preferring always some object which helped to place people on their feet. In many other, ways, Sir Alfred’s munificence has benefited the country. In 1923, he presented 100,000i. to the Royal Society for the foundation of research professorships. In 1908, when it was found difficult to raise the money required for the construction of the National Tank at Teddington, a project into which he had thrown himself with enthusiasm, he made a gift of 20,000Z. to enable the scheme to be carried through. In 1926, he also gave 10,000Z. to the British Association and made many grants in connection with education. Among theso he endowed a scholarship awarded by the Institution of Naval Architects. During the war he offered 20,000Z. in sums of l,000Z. to merchant ships destroying enemy submarines. The unexpended balance of this fund was devoted to the Merchant Seamen’s Orphanage.

Sir Alfred Yarrow was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1922. He was a corporate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers for 62 years, and appreciation of his contributions to the profession was marked by that body making him an Hon. Life Member in 1929. He was closely connected with the work of the Institution of Naval Architects and was elected a Member of Council of that body in 1887 and a Vice-President in 1896.

In advancing years he kept remarkably young. His energy was well maintained. Only a few years ago he went out to British Columbia to see his son Norman, in charge of the Yarrow yard at Vancouver. Quite recently, too, he indulged in an air tour of Europe. He was twice married and had by his first wife, three sons and three daughters. One son was killed at Ypres. The eldest, Mr. Harold E. Yarrow, C.B.E., succeeds to the title."

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. 1861 Census
  3. 1871 Census
  4. 1881 Census
  5. 1891 Census
  6. Motoring Annual and Motorist’s Year Book 1904
  7. The Engineer 1910/03/18
  8. 1911 Census
  9. 1903/02/26 Automobile Club Journal
  10. The Engineer 1932/01/29
  11. 1932 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  12. 1932 Institute of Metals: Obituaries
  13. 1932 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  14. Engineering 1932/01/29

[1] Wikipedia