Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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National Shipyards

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1917 As a means to combat the severe losses of shipping due to enemy action, the Deputy Controller of Auxiliary Shipping conceived a plan to use German prisoners of war as unskilled labour in a project to mass-produce merchant shipping. This would not be possible in a conventional shipyard so it was decided to develop a number of government-owned shipyards - the National Shipyards.

Three National Shipyards were planned, to be built on the banks of the Severn, at Chepstow, Beachley and Portbury. The three yards would have 38 slipways and were intended to be able to produce 78 ships per year, each of 10,500 tons dead weight.

  • The Chepstow yard, known as National Shipyard No.1, was established south of the Edward Finch & Co. (1916) Ltd. shipyard, which was a wartime consortium that was already manufacturing vessels on a small scale. The Finch yard was eventually commandeered by the National Yard under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. The new National shipyard was subject to a massive expenditure of £2,500,000. See here for 1919 and 1920 aerial photographs, recent photos of the site, and maps [1]. Chepstow Railway Bridge and Chepstow Steam Flour Mill can be seen in the 1920 photo.
  • The Beachley yard was intended to be another National Yard
  • The Portbury yard was intended to be another National Yard.

Men from Tyneside and the Clyde came to work at the yard, being accommodated in specifically constructed "Garden Cities" in Hardwick, Bulwark and Pennsylvania in Sedbury. These garden cities still survive in a, largely intact, street plan.

By April 1918, two slipways had been completed, with six more under construction but there was much criticism of the shipyards. Questions were asked in Parliament about the slow progress of output: the first keel was laid on an incomplete slipway in October 1918, perhaps as a direct response to political pressure. The war ended on 11th November without a single vessel having been launched from any of the National Shipyards.

National Shipyard No. 1 was the only one that actually produced vessels, launching a total of 22 significant ships between 1917 and 1925, amongst them six, 6500 ton 'N' Type merchant vessels, though none of the prefabricated designs intended for mass production was launched before the end of the war.

1925 Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd controversially bought the Chepstow shipyard for a mere £600,000 and later largely dismantled it, although substantial portions of the site still remained in industrial use until recently to produce bridges and other structural steelwork. See Fairfield-Mabey and Mabey Bridge.

Neither of the other two National Shipyards launched a single vessel within the same timeframe, despite similar levels of investment.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. [1] GGAT 130: The Sinews of War: South East Wales Industry and The First World War, 2015, by Johnny Crawford for CADW, pp.139-142
  • GGAT 130: The Sinews of War: South East Wales Industry and The First World War, 2015, by Johnny Crawford