It was a sad day in June 1961 when Sid Ham, the timekeeper at Wivenhoe Shipyard rang the bell for the last time. The workforce was down to some twenty hands, and the last contract for the Admiralty was finished; there was hope that we would be building yachts, but unfortunately this work went to Burnham. This was the end of the last phase in the two hundred year history of this four and half acre site, upstream of the Quay.

The beginning of World War Two saw the yard derelict, having had a forty year ban imposed by Shipbuilding Securities Ltd on steel construction in 1937. But the need for extra naval patrol boats and mine sweepers was soon recognised; a new company called Wivenhoe Shipbuilding Ltd was formed by Rowhedge Shipyard on behalf of the Admiralty, and so began the last 21 years of shipbuilding on this historic site. 

The output during World War Two was a great credit to all concerned. When it re-opened in November 1939, the Yard was overgrown with weeds. The dry dock had tons of mud in it despite the efforts of George Hillyard, the landlord of the Shipwrights Arms, who was retained by the landlords to keep an eye on the dock. It was a losing battle as the dock gate always leaked. 

The dry dock was very important, being the the only one on the coast between London and Lowestoft. During World War Two it was never empty; drifters and trawlers came to Wivenhoe in their dozens to be converted or maintained for mine sweeping. New wood construction of the Mickey Mouse class, ninety foot overall, was started and the larger 126 foot motor mine sweepers were also built. These consumed 250 trees per ship, all from a 25 mile radius of Wivenhoe. These sweepers were built largely by tradesmen who, during the slump of the 1930s had done many different jobs. The alternative, as we know, was the dole queue, but in 1940 all men who had been shipbuilding had to register and were directed back into the yards.

At the end of World War Two, work continued on motor mine sweepers for the Reserve Fleet, and also maintenance of Trinity House Vessels was undertaken. In 1951, the Yard got an order for three Ton class motor mine sweepers. These were quite large ships, over 150 foot in length, built of wood and non-magnetic metals. The last naval contract was for four 48 foot provision tenders, built in the old ‘White City’ and taken away by low loaders after being lifted out by Cook’s Shipyard.  

In the 1950s, the Yard had acquired the barquentine "Cap Pilar" which had been lying at Railway Quay.  Her seams had opened up and she was slowly sliding into the main channel, so the Borough Harbour Master had instructed she had to be moved. At the close of the Yard, some personnel were kept on to undertake the move into the dry dock. Ernie Cook, the shipwright foreman, Mr Frostick, the engineer foreman, and one or two other hands were kept on for this purpose. She went into the dock and there she lay until she was broken up in 1966 when the dock was concreted over and a timber yard was established on the site.  

We can say without fear of contradiction that on this site, every type of vessel has been constructed in the last two hundred years. It is great heritage and now marked by a plaque in a fine plinth erected at the head of the dry dock in 2002.

Don Smith, September 2002

The inscription on the plaque reads:

‘rom the building of H.M.S. Inspector, a ship of 36 guns in 1782, until the construction of H.M.S. Wiston in 1958, this dock area was the village shipyard.  Craft from fishing smacks, sail and steam yachts, tramp steamers of 1000 tons and gunboats for Lord Kitchener and General Gordon were built.   WW1 and WW2 minesweepers were also built and serviced, and so too were sections of the Mulberry Harbour constructed here.  The yard closed in June 1961. Further history of the site and road names can be found in the Nottage Institute

The unveiling of the plaque by Town Mayor, Cllr David Craze, with Cllr Peter Hill (left), who proposed and dealt with all the arrangements for its location, and Don Smith (right) who devised the wording.

The plaque was unveiled at a small ceremony on Saturday 19th October, 2002. 

Construction of the plaque was paid for by Persimmon Homes, developers of this part of the shipyard site.  


Note:  For a full list of shipbuilders at this upstream yard, including a plan of the yard, click here