The Thames Monsters and the Model T Boats

An illustration from June 1863 showing “The Eagle”, a 24-oar, 72-foot rowing boat newly built for the Battery Boat Club, having its first outing on the River Thames.

8 September 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch finds that aquatic monsters have not been solely confined to Loch Ness and discovers a man who could have been the Henry Ford of boatbuilding.

My recent article on various sizes of rowing boat showed craft that ranged from those for a single sculler to those carrying 44 rowers. In the article’s ‘comments’ section, rowing historian Louis Petrin wrote that Greek triremes were powered by 170 oarsmen. This reminded me of a talk on rowing galleys in the ancient world given by Professor Boris Rankov at the 2013 Rowing History Forum. My report on his presentation said:

The unpredictable winds of the Mediterranean resulted in the development of rowing rather than sailing boats for both trade and war. Originating with craft having a single tier of 25 rowers on each side, one man to an oar, from 600 BC a second and later a third level of oars were added to increase power. As it was impracticable to add a fourth level, from 500 BC extra men were added to each blade and within 200 years there were oars manned by eight people, some pushing and some pulling. By 200 BC, Ptolemy IV of Egypt had built a galley of 137 metres/450 feet in length. Its longest oars were 19 metres/62 feet and it was rowed by 4,000 oarsmen (though, not surprisingly, it moved ‘precariously and with difficulty’).

Were the information that a craft with 4,000 oarsmen once existed not from an impeccable source, it would be tempting to doubt its accuracy. However, it does pose the question, how big does a rowing boat have to be before it becomes impractical? It could be argued that even eights are not particularly sensible; they are good at what they are designed for, going fast in a straight line, but they otherwise are difficult to manoeuvre, store and transport.

The biggest near conventional modern rowing boat is probably the “Stämpfli Express”, the 24-seat, 44-metre, sectional sculling boat built by Stämpfli for publicity purposes. It must be assembled and disassembled on the water. Picture: DJK Photography.

Returning to The Eagle, the 24-oar of 1863 pictured above, an already difficult craft was made even less viable by the strange addition of space for 36 passengers. A contemporary newspaper report gives some detail.

The ‘Berkshire Chronicle’ of 27 June 1863 (and many other local newspapers) printed this report of two ‘monster rowing boats’ commissioned by the Battery Boat Club.

Thus, The Eagle was 72 ft/22 m long with a maximum width of 7ft/2.1 m. By contrast, a modern eight is about 62 ft/19 m long with a maximum beam of 2 ft/0.6 m. Of course, the seats in Eagle were fixed and double banked and the boat was over three times wider than today’s eights – hence it was not proportionately longer to accommodate vastly more people. However, it is still difficult to imagine that the Battery Boat Club’s flagship worked as described and it is equally problematic to envisage the practicalities of the craft, not least in lifting it from the water (perhaps it was kept moored in the river).

I could find no more about the Battery Boat Club or The Eagle – including how and when it was used and its eventual fate. However, I had an interesting segue when I investigated ‘The National Boatbuilding Company’ in East Greenwich (better known as ‘The National Company for Boat Building by Machinery’) whose yard Eagle was launched from.

An exterior view of the works of the National Boat-Building Company in Bay Wharf, Greenwich, in 1863.

In 2013, a website on the history of the Greenwich Peninsula in south-east London reprinted an article by Dr Mary Mills titled “Nathan Thompson and the Wooden Nutmeg”. Later, Mills summarised her piece in a post on the same site and I rely exclusively on both sources. Mills credits the assistance of, among others, the Science Museum in London, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, south-east London, and Mystic Seaport Museum, Connecticut, USA.

The National Boat-Building Company was founded by Nathan Thompson in Bay Wharf, Greenwich, in 1863. Its workshops were purpose built and ‘state-of-the-art’ (and also oblivious to planning and building regulations). Thompson was a marine engineer from New York who developed a system for building small boats far removed from the age-old method of a few craftsmen working many man hours and using hand tools.

In July 1861, the “Frome Times” and other papers carried this report on Thompson’s proposed boat construction methods shown at his demonstration factory in Bow, East London. His system depended on twelve steam driven machines producing the various boat parts and a thirteenth device assisting in the final assembly.

For those keen on the details, the final paragraph of this rather laboured contemporary account gives a description of each stage of Thompson’s system.

In 1859, the U.S. Navy had examined Thompson’s methods and agreed that he could produce five boats in the time usually taken to make one and predicted that he must gain ‘a world wide reputation for his genius’. It noted, however, that all the boats made under this system had to be identical.

A scene of boat building in the old way with craftsmen taking their time. According to the “Daily News” of 28 January 1863, Thompson’s relatively unskilled workers could produce a 32-foot, eight-oared boat in five hours for £1.25 in labour costs. Competitors needed £16 worth of labour and many days to produce a similar craft.

Why Thompson moved to England after approval from such a valuable potential customer as the U.S. Navy is unclear. There are suggestions that he had stolen some or all of his ideas. A contemporary British account praised his processes but made a strange reference to the manufacture of wooden nutmegs in New England. British readers may not have known that, in the U.S. at the time, ‘a wooden nutmeg’ referred to a dishonest native of Connecticut. Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum told Mills that they prefer to call Thompson a ‘snake oil merchant’.

Thompson was probably a better salesman than commercial boat builder and he may have raised all of the £200,000 capital that he was initially after.

For his boat-manufacturing project, Thompson had a number of backers… He produced a booklet consisting of letters of recommendation for his process. These seem to have been obtained by inviting prominent people to a demonstration and asking to write a reference… As a result the Company prospectus included references from an astonishing number of people including the Dukes of Cambridge and of Sutherland and to an assortment of shipbuilders and industrialists. Whether any of them ordered boats from him isn’t known.

An interior view of the works of the National Boat-Building Company in Bay Wharf, Greenwich, in 1863. Picture: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Thompson claimed that 25,000 new small boats were needed every year in Britain and that he could supply a quarter of these. In fact, he went out of business within a year. Mills notes a contemporary analysis of why this happened, particularly:

the ‘obvious fact; that all the boats had to be the same and that there was little hope of persuading customers to buy so many of a standard type – certainly not enough to sell 6,000 boats a year. [It was] estimated that the total number of ships’ boats needed on the Thames each year was ‘perhaps 300 of over a dozen types and sizes’…

Thus, despite his pioneering assembly line methods of mass production, Nathan Thompson did not become ‘the Henry Ford of small boat building’.

Dr Mills concludes:

Thompson and his boat building system disappeared from the Thames. He had registered his patents all over the world – and it is a matter of speculation where he went next. Happily much of the capital Thompson had invested had turned Bay Wharf into a practical ship building area – and that is what it became for the next forty years.

The launch of the “Lady Derby” in 1865. The occupants of Bay Wharf after Thompson were the long established ‘Maudslay Son and Field’, marine engine manufacturers. The buildings illustrated on the right are recognisable from the 1863 exterior photograph of Thompson’s works.

An unanswered question is: was The Eagle built by the yard that it was launched from in 1863, that of the National Boat Building Company? Sadly, it does not seem possible that Thompson’s ‘one boat’ system could have been adapted to produce a craft as individual as the ‘monster’ ordered by the Battery Boat Club. Perhaps it was simply a case of two unique and, as it turns out, ephemeral things briefly coming together at a point in time?

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