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British Industrial History

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Finch and Co

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Edward Finch and Co of Chepstow built ships, steam engines for marine use, and bridges.

Edward Finch of Liverpool, a partner in the firm of Finch and Willey, constructed the Chepstow Railway Bridge for Brunel. After it was completed, Finch remained in Chepstow, and developed a major engineering and, later, a shipbuilding business on the site beside the river.

1855 'Launch of the Iron Steam-Packet Alma.—
On Monday last, at about 8 a.m., this first specimen of iron steamship building, by Mr. Finch, in Chepstow, was launched. The launch was attended with considerable difficulty. The course to the water laid down for her not being of sufficiently rapid decline, the vessel stopped just as three-fourths of her was the water. By the timely counsel of Messrs. Joseph Davis, H. Gillam and P. Fisher, however, the launch was speedily completed. The vessel is an iron screw collier, of 158 tons burthen, having high pressure engines acting on a screw 6 feet diameter to propel the vessel; she is built with a flat bottom of peculiar strength to enable her to take the ground ; and when fully laden will not draw more than 6 to 7 feet of water. She is designed for the Severn trade.' [1]

1855 'Wrought Iron Masts for Ships.— Mr. E. Finch, of Chepstow, and Mr. C. Lamport, of Workington, have by recent patent demonstrated the applicability of wrought iron to masts for ships. For some of our larger ships it is impossible to get single trees sufficiently large or sound for masts; built masts, that is masts made up of several pieces, are often substituted, but the cost of this, as in the first- named case, is great, with the additional disadvantage of the " sticks" giving way from a multitude of causes inseparable from their very structure. At an outside they do not last more than five years. The advantages claimed for the iron masts are manifold. They are at least one-third higher; they are much cheaper ; they will last as long as the hull of the ship itself; and they admit of many new arrangements of gear, which nautical men find of the greatest practical benefit. Taking cost and duration together, iron masts are about one-third the price of wood, while they are one-third stronger and one-third lighter. The invention is unquestionably an important one, and we draw attention to it, not only on its own account, but in consequence of the bearing it has upon the manufacturing industry of the district. — Wolverhampton Chronicle.' [2]

1855 'The New Bath-bridge.—
Our readers will remember that the Bath-road bridge, at Bristol, was knocked down on the 20th March last, by a coal-barge running against it. This bridge was of cast-iron, and occupied four years in its construction and erection. The Dock Committee wisely determined to erect the new bridge of wrought iron ; and on the 13th of April, Mr. Edward Finch, of the Chepstow Bridge Works, made arrangements with their engineer, Mr. T. E. Blackwell, to construct and erect a new bridge of wrought-iron. This bridge is to consist of nine girders, each girder being 107 feet long, five feet deep in the middle, and four feet at each end, and weighs, each, about 25 tons ; upon the top of these girders is placed strong planking, and over this is formed the road. On Friday last the first girder left Chepstow, and on the evening of that day it was deposited in its place. On Saturday evening the second girder left Chepstow, and was also deposited on its permanent resting-place. Upon the top of these girders will be formed a wide and convenient footpath, and by the end of this week it is expected that there will be a good way across the bridge for foot passengers ; the remaining seven girders are progressing rapidly to completion, and the bridge very shortly will be fit for general traffic. To accomplish this result, in so short a space of time, Mr. Finch had to concentrate all his force upon the work, and to keep his skilled operatives at it late and early ; and to their credit, it may be said they have worked with hearty good will. That some adequate opinion may be formed of the strength of this bridge, it may be mentioned that one the girders, which is now in its place, was tested with dead weight equal to 1,200 people standing distributed upon it, and even this test falls considerably short of the weight the girders will safely sustain. The girders, 107 feet long, were put together and rivetted complete in the maker's yard; when ready for shipment they were taken each separately out of the yard and placed alongside the wharf ; at high water a barge was floated to the wharf, and as the tide receded the barge was left aground the mud bank ; balks of timber were then laid, one end resting upon the barge and the other on the wharf, immediately under the bottom flange the girder ; upon these balks rails were laid, these were greased, and the girder was slided gently down until it rested on the deck of the barge, and being longer than the barge by about 36 feet, there was 18 feet at each end of the girder overhanging ; the balks were then removed, and the girder lashed to its place, standing erect on the barge, the under side of the overhanging ends of the girder being about four feet from the surface of the water. When the tide again rose, the barge with the girder upon floated, and was towed away from the river Wye, at Chepstow, to the mouth of the river Avon, by a steamer. The plan was completely successful. The floating and raising of the two girders were done with the greatest ease imaginable. Being much pleased with the simplicity and effectiveness of this plan of operation, have given the modus operandi.— Monmouthshire Merlin.'[3]

1859: SS Great Eastern: '.... The three centre square-rigged masts are of iron. They were made by Mr. Finch, Chepstow, and are the finest specimens of masts of the kind that were ever manufactured. Each is made of hollow wrought iron in eight-feet lengths, strengthened inside by diaphragms of the same material. Between the joints, as they were bolted together, was placed a pad of vulcanized indiarubber, which gives a spring and buoyancy to the whole spar greater than wood, while at the same time retaining all the strength of the iron. The breaking strain of the six shrouds to each of these masts is over 300 tons, which gives ample security for the masts being properly supported, as the weight of each is only 22 tons.'[4]. See Finch and Heath.

By the early 1880s the yard employed 500 people

1883 Built the steamship 'Radyr' for John Cory and Sons of Cardiff [5]

1885 Built the SS Bull Dog for Port of Bristol Authority. The work included the two tandem compound engine and boilers. Steel was used for the hull and boilers. Centrifugal pump by W. H. Allen; Crane by Stothert and Pitt; lighting dynamo by Brush, driven by Brotherhood engine[6]

1886 'CHEPSTOW. Launch. On Friday morning Messrs. Edward Finch and Co., Limited, launched from their shipbuilding yard at Chepstow a handsomely-modelled steam launch, built to the order of Messrs. Cory Brothers and Co., of London and Cardiff. Her principal dimensions are - Length 50ft., breadth 13ft, depth moulded 6ft. 6in. She is to be fitted with compound engines 8 and 14 by 10 inches stroke, and will be shipped at Cardiff for Port Said.' [7]

1888 'CHEPSTOW. Trial Trip.— On Sunday the steam launch Antorio built by Messrs. Edward Finch and Co., of Chepstow for the Brazilian Coal Co., Limited, of Rio de Janeiro, sailed in charge of their engineer for Swansea, where she arrived safely at four o'clock, having run the whole distance from Chepstow — 85 miles — in eight hours or 10½ miles per hour. The hull is to be shipped (the engine and boiler being taken out) on board a steamer for Rio Janeiro.'[8]

Edward Finch and Co Ltd continued to build ships (and bridges) up to the First World War.

WWI During the War, the yard was extremely busy making minesweepers, tugs and boom defence vessels.

1916 the yard was bought by Standard Shipbuilding Co with funding from a consortium of other shipyard owners. The first task was to modernise the yard - a new venue was found just downstream of the Finch yard. The company was then renamed Edward Finch (1916). The company now had four berths in the old Finch yard, eight new berths in the Chepstow No. 1 yard and a further eight berths in the Bleachely No. 2 yard which was located on the opposite side of the Wye.

1917 The Government took over the yards - becoming part one of the National Shipard No.1. The Shipping Controller ordered two standard "C" types, four "H" types and six prefabricated "N" type vessels.

1920 A group of investors, the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co and the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co wanted to buy the yards[9] but problems arose concerning the tax situation; eventually they formed Monmouth Shipbuilding Co to acquire the yards.

The production of bridges and other large steel structures continued at the site, by the firm of Mabey Bridge.

A View from 1916

'A LOCAL GENIUS. It has already been hinted that the prime mover in the new venture is a native of Chepstow, who was an engineering apprentice on the Wye; and now that the secret is half out, it may be stated that the gentleman so referred to is the vice-chairman of the Standard Company, Mr. John H. Silley, managing director of R. and H. Green and Silley Weir (Limited). He is really the originator of the whole scheme, and his remarkable career and enterprise reflect credit on the Chepstow works, with which he was associated in early life. Indeed, the name of Finch is one to conjure with in the engineering world, and its associations with the development of South Wales are not inconsiderable. Edward Finch, the founder of the firm, was a notable character—almost a genius, regarded by some as on a plane with his better-known contemporary, Brunel, with whom he was on terms of great friendship. Like many men of great ability. Finch was somewhat eccentric, lacked the commercial instinct, and had no ambition for money-making. It is recorded that he did not make as much as £500 on the construction of the tubular bridge at Chepstow, a work which stands as a monument to Brunel's creative genius and Finch’s executive ability ; and, with all his engineering feats, died poor man. It was Finch who first conceived the idea of the Thames Embankment, and plans of his are still extant for elaborate treatment of the Metropolis on the same principles.

'DIRECT ROUTE TO LONDON. Another idea of Finch’s which has an important bearing on the mineral traffic from South Wales was a shorter railway route from the coalfield to London. Before the Severn Tunnel was constructed Finch proposed carrying the Great Western Railway to Chepstow, over the bridge which was then constructing, and down to Beachley Pier, where the Severn would spanned to Aust Rock, on the Bristol side the river. This would have afforded a direct route to London, with the advantage that it would not have entailed a third of the cost of the Severn Tunnel. Even now, with the increasing congestion of mineral traffic through the tunnel, and the great developments ahead of Chepstow, this idea may yet bear fruition - in the not very remote future. But Finch lacked commercial initiative, and during most his lifetime was without the support which his brilliant ideas required be put into practice. He was a prolific inventor. Like Brunel, he lived before his time. One of his patents was for dock-gate. This he brought to the notice of the engineers of the time; but, with all its advantages, not one of them had the courage to adopt it. After his death it came into general adoption, and is in use to this day. Although was a man of remarkable energy and industry—he worked till two o’clock every morning, and flaunted his rolls of plans before outraged church-going folk as he walked to his office on Sundays - he gained little benefit from his clever schemes; while all his contemporaries, many of much less ability, rose to be the heads of enormous concerns all over the country. What little leisure he found he devoted to sketching, and he was reputed to be a very clever artist.

'THE NAVY'S MASTS. Finch came from Liverpool with Willey to construct Brunel's bridge in 1847, and so struck were they with the exceptional facilities of Chepstow that they removed their business, which was the origin of the existing local bridge works. That was the transition stage, for Chepstow changed its character entirely with the decadence of wooden shipbuilding. Finch was later joined in partnership with a man of some commercial instinct, and the constructional part of the business thrived considerably. Finch himself originated and patented iron masts for the Navy, and the firm supplied the whole of the warships. Among the craft equipped was the Great Eastern, by Brunel, and it may be remarked, by the way, showing how the great engineer was in advance of his time, that of all the constructive principles employed by him there has been little, if any, essential variation to the present day. After the formation of a company, in the early eighties, the works turned out four dozen ships ranging from 2,500 tons down 1,200 tons, and the firm have been contracting directly with the Admiralty for the past eighty years. Other works of a constructive character include those at Sharpness and the fine bridge at Great Yarmouth besides most of the important bridges the Great Western Railway erected in the early days. Of particular interest to Cardiff is the building of a pair of gates for the Bute East Dock—a work temporarily suspended owing to the war. The existing iron gates were built at Chepstow by Finch to replace the original wooden gates, and the father of Mr. T. V. Ellis, who was Finch's chief yard foreman, and had come with Finch from Liverpool to construct Brunel's tubular bridge, had charge of the building of them over fifty ago. It must be particularly gratifying to the present managing director, Mr. T. V. Ellis, to feel that he is at the head of firm which is repeating history in this way.

'BUSY OLD DAYS. Chepstow throughout has been associated with wooden, iron, and steel Ships in succession, and in the old days the place was an important centre. About a hundred years ago there were at least three shipbuilding yards, and a little later there was more shippmg there than in the whole of Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea combined. All wines and spirits were imported there, half a dozen Customs men being in charge of the large bonded store. Then nearly all the old wooden walls those days were built timber shipped at Chepstow from the Forest of Dean, quite a lot of sailing craft being engaged in that business. Now the people of the district are looking forward to even busier times than in the past. So welcome is the new venture that Mr. J. E. G. Lawrence, the chairman of the local authority, although personally interested in Messrs. Finch and Co. (Limited), is one of its most enthusiastic advocates, and there is every assurance that endeavours will be made to remove any obstacles that can possibly be raised and to secure the unqualified success of Chepstow’s shipbuilding industry as whole.' [10]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Hereford Times, 24ht March 1855
  2. Sheffield Independent, 29th December 1855
  3. Liverpool Daily Post - Wednesday 13 June 1855
  4. Newcastle Journal, 13th August 1859
  5. Western Mail, 20th August 1883
  6. Western Daily Press, 17 March 1885
  7. Gloucester Citizen, 5th June 1886
  8. Gloucester Citizen, 23 October 1888
  9. The Times, Feb 05, 1920
  10. Western Mail, 8th July 1916
  • Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain by George Watkins. Vol 10
  • The Steam Engine in Industry by George Watkins in two volumes. Moorland Publishing. 1978. ISBN 0-903485-65-6