The Strangest Water Craft London Ever Built

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 17 months ago
The Strangest Water Craft London Ever Built

In 1858 the 19,000 ton steamer, first called the Leviathan, dwarfing other vessels of the period, was launched on the Thames. We know it as Brunel’s Great Eastern. But our river was once home to numerous yards and they produced several other bizarre craft.

Winans’ Cigar Ship (1866)

Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

Wealthy American inventor Ross Winans built this strange missile-shaped ship in 1858 and named it after himself. Although the vessel looks to our eyes like a submarine it was not intended to submerge, but simply keep most of its bulk, like the proverbial iceberg, below the buffeting of wind and waves. The ship excited the press but garnered little commercial interest. Winans nevertheless had a number of similar designs built in Russia and in England (just east of Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs), well out of the way of the civil war which raged at home. The science fiction novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) was forming in author Jules Verne’s mind at the time and it seems likely that Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus owes something to Winans.

Bermuda Dry Dock (1869)

Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

A rusting skeleton protrudes from the waves near Spanish Point, Bermuda. It is all that remains of a huge structure strategically placed to support Royal Navy operations in the North Atlantic when relations with the Americans were frosty. Today, we would call it a floating dry dock, a semi-submersible vessel. It was towed across the Atlantic from Woolwich where it was built. The dock could be sunk like a submarine by flooding its hollow walls with seawater. When a vessel in need of repair had been positioned above it, the water was pumped out to refloat it, now with the ship cradled like a beetle in the palm of your hand.

Cylinder Ship ‘Cleopatra’ (1877)

Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

How did Cleopatra’s Needle, 186 tons of stone, get all the way from Egypt in 1878 when it was not available in flat pack? Incredibly, when it started its journey it had already been awaiting collection in Egypt’s mail room for nearly 60 years. The solution was to float it here on iron water wings. The ‘cylinder ship’ Cleopatra was designed by Benjamin Baker, later celebrated for the Forth Railway Bridge, and built at the Thames Iron Works at the mouth of the River Lea. The ponderous parcel was lost at sea for a few hours during a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Luckily, it was found and lassoed by another ship. Like most packaging the Cleopatra was just thrown away afterwards.

Coastal Motor Boat (CMB) (1916)

Image from ‘The Dover Patrol, 1915-1917’ by Sir Reginald Hugh Spencer Bacon (1918) on archive.org

The Royal Navy readied itself for the first world war with a fleet of armoured dreadnoughts. Shipbuilding on the Thames had mostly ceased. But size is not everything and the deadly but innocuously named ‘CMBs’ were speedboats built of plywood for lightness by John Thornycroft at Platt’s Eyot in the river above Hampton Court. The CMB could reach 40 knots (rather faster than a Thames Clipper at full gallop). His fragile, surface skimming craft had a huge V-12 engine and a single torpedo. Thornycroft was helped in the design by his sons and his daughter, Blanche, the first woman associate of the Institute of Marine Engineers. A gripping account is given in the book Operation Kronstadt of how Lieutenant ‘Gus’ Agar was sent in 1918 with CMBs on a secret mission to exfiltrate a British spy from Leningrad, a port heavily defended by shoals, forts and minefields. Agar took time out to torpedo a Bolshevik battle cruiser for which he was awarded a Victoria Cross.

Phoenix Caissons (1944)

Greenland Dock and East India Dock were emptied and used as construction yards for the second world war Mulberry Harbours. There being no undefended ports on the continent through which to resupply the Allied invasion force immediately after D-Day in 1944, it was necessary to take a couple in kit form. All the piers, pontoons, jetties and even breakwaters had to be floated across the channel and assembled into a working harbour within a few days. The concrete structures made in the London Docks were of a type code-named Phoenix: each 60m long and 18m high. They were designed to be sunk to form sections of breakwater. They did not all survive their journey and you can see one wreck off Southend Pier.

Last Updated 21 July 2016