Shipwrights' History

The origins of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights.

Shipwrights' History

London being an ancient port on a formidable river, it was entirely natural that shipwrights should have been one of the oldest trades there – so old in fact that there are no records of the origins of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, which was officially recognised five hundred years ago as being ”prescriptive”, that is, before things were written down, generally recognised as before 1199. The earliest written references to City shipwrights, “Citizen & Shipwright”,  occur in the 13th century, when there were groups around London Bridge and Thames Street in Petit Wales. Some of the families were apparently wiped out in the Black Death and the survivors did not feel strong enough to require formal recognition as a major craft until the 15th century.

Under the Tudors, the size of ships increased dramatically and new, larger, shipyards – including some “Royal Dockyards” – were established downriver from the City. The controllers of these yards set themselves up as the Company of Shipwrights of Redriff (Rotherhithe), known in the City as the Foreign (that is, non City) Shipwrights and eventually obtained a Royal Charter purporting to give them control over shipbuilding throughout England. This was vigorously opposed by the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights of London, and by similar organisations in Hull and Newcastle upon Tyne.  After a century of disputes and lawsuits the foreign shipwrights were disbanded in about 1700.

The Shipwrights of London continued on the Thames, with for a while two Masters, one for “Above the Bridge” (London Bridge), building river craft, the other “Below the Bridge”, building barges and seagoing craft. Under City lore, sons of Liverymen were allowed to take up the freedom of the City by patrimony, but members of the Shipwrights’ Company could not take advantage of this because they were not liverymen. In 1782 the Company therefore petitioned for and obtained the livery, becoming the 59th Livery Company of the City. As shipbuilding on the Thames gradually declined through the 19th century and moved away from wooden ships, the Company lost much of its influence, becoming one of those companies which were “resuscitated”  under Lord John Manners (later the Duke of Rutland) in 1876. Efforts were immediately made to bring into the Company prominent shipbuilding and shipping people from across the country, and today the Company prides itself on being the principal maritime Company in London with naval architects and marine engineers, shipowners and shipbrokers, specialists in maritime law, banking and insurance, and officers of the Royal and Merchant navies.