About the Thames Ironworks Heritage Trust

A small group of enthusiasts are in the final processes of setting up a charity, the Thames Ironworks Heritage Trust, to restore a number of fully operational Thames Ironworks lifeboats, bringing back long-lost skills in shipwrighting to the area and offering educational heritage tours of the waterways around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and wider canal and river network. 

This part of East London is close to where the Ironworks was originally based and where the football club West Ham United, which was originally Thames Ironworks FC, will be based from 2016 with their impending move to the Olympic stadium. As hinted by the Club's crossed hammers in their badge and their nicknames the 'Hammers' and the 'Irons', the history of the club lies closer to the stadium than many peope think.

The Trust aims to provide work and training in boatmastery for young local people and tour guide skills to older people with first hand memories of the area's industrial past.

The Thames Ironworks

The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd was incorporated in 1857, taking over the operations of C J Mare and Co. The Ironworks was situated on both sides of the river as it enters the Thames at Leamouth.

The company's expertise in the production of iron ships stood it in good stead as the ironclad era of warship production came into being at this time.

Starting with orders from the British Admiralty, the Ironworks went on to build warships for the Italian, Japanese, Romanian and Peruvian navies amongst others.

After the turn of the 20th century, life became increasingly hard for the Company as competition increased between the northern yards, with lower costs, and foreign shipyards. As a result an increasingly important part of the company's revenues came from the production of lifeboats.

Image above: lifeboat under construction at the Ironworks


The Ironworks produced over 250 lifeboats for eventual use by the RNLI, helping to keep the company's head above water until it eventually folded in 1912 - just a couple of years short of the militarisation that took place ahead of the First World War.

Image right: the lifeboat William in her finished state in the factory

The surviving boats

Perhaps 30 boats still exist of those produced by the Ironworks. The most important of these is HMS Warrior in Portsmouth.

A handful of the lifeboats remain, some of which have been restored, with one or two seaworthy examples still around. Arguably one of the best is the James Stevens no.14, based in Walton.

There are still a few wrecks too, one such until recently was the Helen Smitton, built in 1910 and the first lifeboat in St Abbs, Berwickshire. She is now undergoing a major restoration to restore her to as near-perfect condition as possible.

Others remain decrepit - the Janet Hoyle, a 35' Liverpool class lifeboat built by the Ironworks in 1908, was found on a mudflat in Essex, but due to the quality of the materials used in her construction (mainly Honduran mahogany), she has survived and, more importantly, is restorable.

Image above: James Stevens no. 14
              Image above: Helen Smitton

Images above: the Janet Hoyle

What the future holds

The Olympic Park is a maze of waterways based on the river Lea, first developed by Alfred the Great in 896 and altered continuously up until 1930. Their greatest use was seen during the Industrial Revolution due to the need for maritime transportation.

The plan is to find a spot close the original factory, re-establishing the 'Thames Ironworks', employing a master and apprentices to conduct the restoration bringing back skills in shipwrighting that have been lost to East London for over 100 years.

Once the boats are complete, the Trust aims to use them to offer tours in and around the Olympic Park, with the focus being the industrial and pre-industrial heritage; something that is at risk of being lost as the area slowly gentrifies.

If a mooring close to the Olympic stadium is secured, fundraising can being primarily seeking to raise money from fans and from boating and lifeboat enthusiasts initially, with bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund, West Ham United and grant-making bodies planned in due course. This will help to reconnect the Club to its past, two miles downsteam at Leamouth.

Crossrail have been working on the original Ironworks site in Canning Town and have recovered lots of material that could potentially be used for building a visitor centre for the Trust.



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