Preston Dock – Shipbreakers

THE story of the hard life of shipbreakers working for Thomas Ward’s at Preston, Barrow and Morecambe was told in an exhibition called Muck and Brass held a few years ago.
The hundreds of men working at Lancashire’s shipbreaking yards risked life and limb to deconstruct imposing vessels, from paddle steamers and liners to submarines and 20,000 ton warships.
Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield opened its ship dismantling department in 1894, with yards in Barrow, Preston and later in Morecambe.
It became the first major supplier of scrap metal to the growing steel and industrial manufacturers.
Everything on board would be recycled to maximise profit.
The process was extremely efficient with ferrous and non-ferrous metals sold separately.
Fittings and equipment would be traded at Ward’s showroom in Sheffield.
Books, lamps, toilet bowls, surgical items, carpets were all dismantled — even the timber was turned into garden furniture by the yard’s joiners!
The vessels were kept afloat for as long as possible while they were stripped of their engines and motors.
As a ship became lighter it would be towed further inshore until the hull would be broken on the shore or river bed at low tide.
Shipbreaking was extremely hazardous, causing explosions, smoke, noise and attracting vermin.
The workers’ wages were low and conditions were poor.
In the early years, the task depended on heavy manual labour and explosives.
Later, oxygen and acetylene cutters were introduced, which were less taxing physically but just as dangerous.
The lead-paint from the ships let off poisonous fumes. Milk and other ineffective liquid remedies were prescribed.
Asbestos was another risk and respirators were introduced in 1965. Limbs and fingers were often trapped or severed by machinery or heavy falling objects.
Men fell from the quaysides, jetties and ships as they undertook awkward tasks.
The weight of the ships’ parts had been known to topple cranes, causing the death of one worker in Preston in the 1950s.
In Morecambe, residents objected to T W Ward’s yard because it interfered with the ’beautification’ of the waterfront and the aspiration to develop it as a tourist town.
However, the ships were always a source of interest to Morecambe’s visitors and Ward’s were extremely reluctant to withdraw from the resort.
Between 1921 and 1928 more than 419,000 people paid to view the ships!
Ward’s were great self-publicists and made the most of vessels with interesting features and histories to increase their visitor appeal.
These included the cruiser, HMS Glasgow, known for its part in the destruction of Admiral von Spee’s German raiding squadron in 1914 and the submarine HMS Explorer, designed to test the secret German hydrogen Peroxide fuel system in WWII.
The periscope later became a working exhibit in Barrow’s Periscope pub.

Thomas Ward was born in 1853, started work at 15, became a coal merchant and then, because the time was right for it, a scrap metal dealer in Sheffield.
In the early 1870s there was a big demand for scrap metal. There were many big engineering projects and Thomas Ward developed an expertise in dismantling big structures.
During the First World War, Thomas Ward’s was heavily engaged in war activities.
There was a shortage of horses which had been sent to the front and in 1916 Ward leased an elephant (and a man to look after it) from a circus.
The firm had the elephant for a couple of years, stabling her near the factory and using her for hauling heavy loads of steel around Sheffield. The elephant’s name was Lizzie and the records are full of anecdotes about her — eating a schoolboy’s cap, putting her trunk through a kitchen window to help herself, and pushing over a traction engine.
Thomas W Ward is believed to have had a total of 13 yards by the 1920’s.
The late Jack Dakres book, “THE LAST TIDE”, A history of the Port of Preston 1809 – 1981, has a chapter on shipbreaking in Preston.– Messrs. T.W.Ward Ltd; Preston, with a long list of ships broken up by them. From one company in 1878, it grew to a large group of companies. In a 1965 advertisement they said they had dismantled over 2,000 ships in 67 years of shipbreaking. The Thos W. Ward group was eventually swallowed by Rio Tinto-Zinc in 1982 after a £125m takeover battle.

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