In 1904 the Thornycroft shipbuilding company moved from Chiswick, where it had been established by John Isaac Thornycroft in 1864, to Woolston. The firm had initially prospered at Chiswick by building fast craft and torpedo boats for the Royal Navy, but the increasing size of warships necessitated their finding new premises that could handle larger vessels. They took over the yard used by Oswald Mordaunt until 1889, and then by a succession of short-lived shipbuilding enterprises.

The first Thornycroft destroyer built at Woolston was HMS Tartar, launched in 1907. Between forty and fifty warships were built by the company during World War One. After the war, the company expanded into other areas of shipbuilding, constructing cargo and passenger ships, tugs and ferries, many destined for foreign buyers. The firm also produced motor vehicles from a base in Basingstoke and small marine craft at Hampton-on-Thames. A yard at Northam was taken over for repairs and re-fittings, and a ship repair department was opened in the docks. During World War Two the Woolston yard produced a vast number of naval ships ranging from small motor launches to destroyers.

After the war, Thornycrofts survived on a mixture of warship, commercial shipping and repair contracts. During the 1960s, with British shipbuilding in decline, the economic environment became increasingly difficult for independent shipbuilders and in 1966 they were taken over by the Portsmouth-based shipbuilders Vospers Ltd to become Vosper Thornycroft Ltd. The company was nationalised in 1977, becoming a division of British Shipbuilders and then returned to the private sector in 1985 after a management buyout.

The company continued to flourish even during lean times for the warship building industry, largely because of its reputation for quality and its successful export strategy. The company sold warships all over the world as well as supplying the Royal Navy. In 2003, after almost a hundred years at Woolston, the company decided to close its shipyard on the River Itchen and move its shipbuilding operations to a newly-built shipyard in Portsmouth.

Vosper Thornycroft

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Vosper Thornycroft. Photograph, c.1990

Further reading:

Thornycroft: 50 years at Woolston. (HS/pf)
Half a Century of Thornycroft Progress. (HS/pf)
100 years of Specialised Shipbuilding and Engineering, by K. C. Barnaby. (HS/pf)
Thorny’s: an Oral History of Vosper Thornycroft’s shipyard, by Krista Woodly (et al). (HS/pf)
Warships for the World, by Barry Stobart-Hook. (HS/pf)
Vosper Thornycroft Built Warships, by Trevor Piper (HS/pf)


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