Thomas Ridley Oswald arrived in Southampton from Sunderland in c.1875 and opened up a shipbuilding and ship repair yard in Woolston, thus beginning a tradition of shipbuilding in the suburb that lasted for over one hundred years. Oswald was the nephew of Sunderland shipbuilder James Laing and began working at his uncle’s yard at the age of sixteen. By age twenty-one he had opened his own ship yard in Sunderland, building mainly iron sailing ships and barques. He moved to Woolston in the 1870s and branched out into building steam ships, complete with engines and boilers, although he continued to build sailing vessels. The first ship launched at the Woolston yard was the Aberfoyle, completed in 1876. During the thirteen years 1876-1889 another 103 vessels were launched from the Woolston yard of the company, which was restyled Oswald, Mordaunt & Co in 1878, when Oswald took into partnership with John Murray Mordaunt, who presumably provided additional capital for further expansion of the business.

The census taker of 1881 noted Oswald as “shipbuilder and engineer (1,200 men)”. This figure may have represented the maximum number of yard employees when the order book was full: White’s Hampshire Directory of 1878 stated that the yard “in full work employs 1000 hands: all the details of the vessels and their engines are made on the premises.” The majority of the yard’s output – and its speciality – comprised sturdy and well styled three-mast full-rigged iron sailing ships of 2,000+ tons, mostly for Liverpool owners, to serve worldwide as economical long-haul bulk carriers in the period when sail could still undercut steam for cargoes of e.g. coal, lumber, grain, nitrates etc. The firm built a number of sailing ships for the Liverpool-based R. W. Leyland and Co.

Some of these hard-sailing Woolston-built windjammers were remarkably long lasting. One veteran, built for and originally named as Leyland Brothers in 1886, sold to Portugal in 1912 and later converted into a motor ship, was not finally retired until 1967. The oldest and best-known of the Woolston sailing ships is the 2.170 ton Wavertree, launched on December 10, 1885. Her sailing career with the Leyland line ended in 1910 when she was battered and dismasted off Cape Horn but she continued to serve as a storage hulk and sand barge off Buenos Aires, until recognised as a unique veteran by American enthusiasts, who bought her and had her towed in 1970 to New York, where she has been painstakingly restored as a showpiece of the South Street Seaport Museum – visited by Prince Philip in 1980. Nearly a third of the 104 vessels launched at Woolston from the Oswald, Mordaunt yard were steamships. The largest, built in 1883, was the 5.085 ton Bitterne, unfortunately wrecked in 1890. Another 1883 iron screw steamer, the Test – half her size – was torpedoed in 1917. The Solent (1878, 1,908 tons) did thirty years service with the Royal Mail company. The last ship built by the company at Woolston in 1889, was a steel and iron barque of 1,254 tons, for a French company, to carry petroleum in bulk – miniscule though her capacity may now seem by comparison with the huge modern carriers, of which she was a forerunner.

Despite its good repute and large output, Oswald Mordaunt & Co got into financial difficulties, leading to liquidation in 1889. T R Oswald himself lost little time in cutting his losses and setting up a new company, as T R Oswald & Co, and finding a new site at Milford Haven, where he soon resumed shipbuilding. Oswald had nevertheless firmly established major shipbuilding at Woolston. After his departure, a company called the Southampton Naval Iron Works Ltd was formed to re-open the yard early in 1890. It built 18 ships in three years, before itself going bankrupt. The yard was closed from 1893 to 1897, when it was taken by J G Fay & Co, a yacht building firm seeking to expand from Northam into steel sailing barges, tugs, pontoons etc. In 1900 the yard was bought by Mordey, Carney and Co, who already had extensive shipbuilding interests in Wales. They built 34 ships and barges, before selling the yard in 1904 to J I Thornycroft & Co Ltd.

T R Oswald lived at New Place House on the corner of London Road and Cumberland Place, Mordaunt had a house at Midanbury, while William Rudd Oswald, who acted as manager of his brother’s shipbuilding works, lived at Woolston.


Further reading:

'‘The speculatively-built ships of Oswald, Mordaunt and Company’, 1879-84: Woolston, Bitterne, Test, Itchen and Netley', by A .G. K. Leonard, in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no. 16, Winter 2010, p28-33. (HS/h)
Southampton Occasional Notes, 2nd Series by ‘Townsman’, p25. (HS/h)
‘T. R. Oswald, Iron Shipbuilder’, by John Naylon, in Ships in Focus Record, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1996, p185-166.
‘The Last Launch: Farewell to Shipbuilding at Woolston’, by Andrew Cooke, in Ships Monthly, Vol. 38, No. 10, October 2003, p36-39.


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