Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:12 pm

An item in a local paper stated that the hammerhead crane, which for decades has dominated the Medina estuary, was in such a bad condition it may have to be demolished. This, with the fruition of a plan to develop the west bank of the river, would mean, with the exception of the three storey office building, all traces of the once prosperous firm, John Samuel White and Co., Shipbuilders and Engineers, would be lost for ever.

The precise date when the White family began building ships is not known, but a rumour links it with the Armada. Records show that a John White was doing it in Kent in the first half of the Seventeenth Century. In 1764 the fifth John White launched from a shipyard near Broadstairs Harbour a naval cutter, H.M.S. Lapwing, designed on the ‘cod’s head and mackerel tail’ principle. By 1800 the yard run by John’s son, Thomas (1773-1859) was building bigger ships including a 14-gun brig, H.M.S. Desperate – probably his last before he bought Nye’s Yard at Cowes and closed his Kentish one.

With Joseph, a son by his first wife, and John and Robert by his second to help him, Thomas soon became an established builder of yachts for the Royal Yacht Squadron with the reputation for being a popular employer. John, the firm’s designer, experimented with clockwork models in a testing tank in the garden of their home, which was located in the Yard, and Robert invented a number of new shipbuilding methods. Together they designed a new type of lifeboat that was adopted worldwide. One of the first yachts to make the firm’s reputation was the brig, Falcon, launched in 1815 for the Hon. C. A. Pelham (later Lord Yarborough). Eventually she was sold to carry opium in the Far East. It is said Pelham maintained the equivalent of naval discipline by flogging delinquents. The brig yacht, Waterwitch, was built in 1882 for Lord Belfast. At this period the Admiralty’s 12-gun brigs, being over-rigged, were so non-seaworthy they were known as ‘coffin ships’. Lord Belfast demanded a design that would carry an even heavier battery and yet be faster and safer. When the Waterwitch fulfilled these conditions the Admiralty, after a show of reluctance, was compelled to buy her. A schooner with superb accommodation, Queen Victoria, was built in 1846 for the Czar who wished to see yacht racing in Russian waters.

Until the firm closed in the late Nineteen Seventies, a large quantity of watercolours by George Gregory (whose work is now fetching high prices) depicting various aspects of Nineteenth Century ship construction hung in the staff dining room. Some of the pictures probably showed work being done by artificial light. When shallow draught gunboats were urgently required during the Crimean War to bombard Russian forts, White’s having installed gas lighting were able to work three shifts a day to produce them in record time.

Hamilton White, Joseph’s son, took over the firm from his father until 1860 when John Samuel White (1838-1915) John’s son, assumed full control for the rest of his life.

In the meantime the firm which began in Cowes, split into two sections – the engine works and the lifeboat shop remaining on the original site, the shipyard being transferred across the river to East Cowes.

Books published for publicity purposes show the firm’s versatility. In 1841 the hull of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s paddle boat, Medina, was built and in 1853 the P&0 liner, Vectis, was constructed with iron as a substitute for wood. A stern-wheel, shallow draught steamer was completed in 1902 which, with a sister ship, was employed as a troop-ship on the Niger. Having White-Forster water tube boilers and triple expansion horizontal engines, they proved to be more economical than most of the genre.

Simply for the sake of owning a famous ship, the Shogun of Japan bought the paddle sloop, Keang Soo, from the Chinese Government and renamed her Kasuga. Subsequently she fought in the Japanese civil war with a junior lieutenant who was destined to become Admiral Togo. Other miscellaneous craft were the Massey Shaw, a fire fighter for the Thames; the paddler, Crested Eagle (1924) for the London-Ramsgate run; 15ft picket boats for the Admiralty; the 12-ton Bermudian cutter, Mistress, two cargo and passenger vessels, Rab and Bakar, for service on the Dalmatian coast, and a diesel-electric chain ferry for the Cowes-East Cowes crossing.

A list of naval vessels built by White’s between 1885 and 1963 refers initially to H.M.S. Swift, delivered in 1885, and gives 168 as the total, 156 being for the Royal Navy, 3 for Argentina, 2 for Chile, 1 for New Zealand, and 3 for Poland. Incidentally, one of the latter, the Blyskawica, back for an overhaul in 1942, saved Cowes from total destruction by enemy action by firing until her gun barrels literally were red-hot. (see link at end of article)

A large percentage of the above were torpedo boats and destroyers; in addition to which were several flotilla leaders, two submarines, launched respectively in August 1916 and July 1917, patrol vessels (‘Q’ ships), sloops, a guard boat, two L.C.Ts (Mark 8), 9 frigates, and a minelayer, H.M.S. Abdiel, the largest ship ever built in Cowes, which had the lines of an enlarged destroyer, and being needed to lay mines off Brest to prevent the Scharnhoest and Gneisenau from escaping, she went into service before trials were run. On returning to White’s for inspection, once again trials were waived to allow her to go to the Mediterranean.

A list of R.N.L.I. lifeboats built between 1898 and 1964 gives a total of 102.

Two obituaries in the Daily Telegraph circa 1998 mention ships built by J.S.W. being in actions worthy of note. In March 1942 H.M.S. Kingston, a ‘K’ Class destroyer launched in 1939, under the command of Captain Geoffrey Kirby took part in the Second Battle of Sirte, in which light cruisers and destroyers defended a Malta convoy against a formidable Italian force that included two heavy cruisers and the battleship, Littorio. Kingston was damaged by a near miss from a 15-inch shell fired by the battleship. Kirby was awarded a bar to his D.S.C. In Malta the ship was damaged beyond repair by bombs.

In February 1943, H.M.S. Easton, a Hunt Class destroyer commanded by Captain Wickham Malins, co-operated with H.M.S. Wheatland in sinking Asteria, an Italian submarine off Bougie in North Africa. True to naval tradition they rescued the entire crew. Malins, too, received a bar for his D.S.C. Six days later Easton assisted three other ships to sink U443 off Algiers. In March she damaged U83. Acting as escort to a convoy, off Pantelleria in August 1943 Easton made two depth-charge attacks, and aided by the Greek destroyer, Pindos, brought U458 to the surface. At 20 knots Malins rammed and sank the submarine, buckling his own bow in the process so badly the Greek had to tow her into Malta. Although his action incurred displeasure, he was awarded the D.S.O.

Of all encounters with the enemy made by White’s destroyers during the 1914-18 War probably the most renowned was that executed by H.M.S. Broke (ex-Almirante for the Chilean Navy) when on patrol under the command of Commander E. R. Evans in April 1917 accompanied by H.M.S. Swift she met a German flotilla of large destroyers about to attack Dover. Heavily out-gunned Evans went into action with all guns that would bear, and caused one ship to abandon her mission. He then repeated the manoeuvre and sank G42. Although Broke was badly damaged by enemy fire, Evans torpedoed and sank her first victim before being towed into Dover Harbour. Forty of the crew had lost their lives.

By that time three Tribal Class destroyers, Mohawk, Saracen, and Crusader, had bombarded Flanders to stem the German Army’s advance.

When Ostend fell, Crusader was ordered to reconnoitre the coast. With great audacity she steamed at full speed within range of the enemy’s guns, and infuriated officers of the German General Staff quartered in the Hotel Majestic by firing twelve-pounders to demolish it.

Attracting less attention than the Broke’s exploit, H.M.S. Botha played a large part in a nocturnal battle when gunfire across the Channel warned of a naval attack on the French and Dutch shore batteries. In consort with other ships she left Dover and sped towards the action where she narrowly missed being hit by the batteries she wanted to help. Engaging the enemy at 600 yards range, she immediately had a shell through her side and steam pipe. Realising the Germans were trying to escape, Commander Rede headed for the nearest ship at a reduced speed of 26 knots, rammed her amidships, and cut her in halves, sustaining considerable damage by so doing. With steam pressure dropping alarmingly, she was lying helpless when the French destroyer, Capitaine Mehl, failing to recognise her put a torpedo in her coal bunker. Still afloat, Botha was towed into Dunkirk and repaired.

At the Battle of Heligoland Bight in August 1914 the Ferret and Forester (‘I’ Class destroyers launched in 1911) were in a flotilla, which engaged the German destroyer V187 that was flying the Commodore’s pennant, and sent her to the seabed. In the same action the destroyers Laurel and Liberty (Laporey or ‘L’ Class) were in the Third Flotilla under Commodore Tyrwhitt whose task was to pursue and attack the light cruiser, Mainz, as she ran away from our light cruisers. These two took the full force of the German’s 4.1-inch guns as they came within a thousand yards range. Both were severely hit, with Commander Ross of H.M.S. Laurel among the many casualties. Bravely he refused to give in until he collapsed.

The sister ships, Basilisk and Harpy (Beagle or ‘G’ Class destroyers) were employed in the Dardanelles operation, the former one of four chosen to clear the Kephez minefield in advance of bombarding battleships, and ceaselessly used to screen larger ships as well as herself bombarding and conveying troops to Sulva Bay – 500 aboard her and 500 in towed barges. While raiding Asia Minor for livestock, Harpy was endangered by a Turkish ambush.

In March 1916 the flotilla leader, Lightfoot, operating with the Harwich Force off the enemy coast assisted a destroyer which, as the result of a collision, was holed in her engine room. In heavy seas and under constant air attack, Lightfoot towed Medusa (not built by White’s) homewards, refusing to desert her until a parted towrope and reiterated orders forced him to, after taking off Medusa’s crew before she sank.

At the Battle of Jutland several of White’s ships did meritorious service. H.M.S Faulkenor, one of the flotilla leaders originally ordered by the Chilean Government, led the attack on the Second German Battle Squadron, which sank the battleship Pommern with all hands. Her sister ship, Tipperary, fighting to the last, sank under incessant gunfire. After the Armistice three orders for destroyers were cancelled, and ten years were to elapse before another Admiralty order was placed – an order that resulted in H.M.S. Kempenfelt, (a Crusader or ‘C’ Class destroyer) being launched in October 1931 – the precursor of a steady stream of orders that culminated with the Leander Class (Improved Type 12) frigate Arethusa that entered the water in November 1963. In 1944 their first welded hull had been built.

The loss of Admiralty orders had, by 1926, created serious problems and in the spring of that year the only large ship in the yard was Montague Graham-White’s magnificent steam yacht Alacrity (formerly Marguerite) that was being repaired. The only things being made were their Clinsol clean-in-service strainers, Reed-Cooper immersible pumps, made under licence, and oil fuel installations for which the works manager had designed a safety device that shut off the oil flow before permitting the sprayer body to be taken from the boiler, which went all over the world, and had been exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 and 1925.

In its heyday the firm’s reputation for producing first class craftsmen after a five year apprenticeship enabled men who wished to work at their trade to obtain employment wherever vacancies presented themselves. Many, however, became fully certificated marine engineers with some even rising to executive positions in shipping companies after many years at sea. One former employee destined for greater fame in other fields was the inventor of the dam-busting bomb and other remarkable weapons, Sir Barnes Wallis.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.


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