17 May 2012

When shipbreaking was a big dockside business:

TODAY millions of holiday-makers on their way abroad pass a site at Dover's Eastern Docks where once up to 800 men toiled breaking up ships, mostly from the Royal Navy's fleet.

Fifty years ago Dover Industries, owned by Eddie Hill and then employing up to 100 men, covered acres of the Eastern Docks where today port officials check lorries and cars searching for contraband.

Mr Hill bought the Danish-owned shipbreaking business, that had operated under different names out of the Eastern Docks for many years, in 1946. The then owners were recovering from wartime German occupation.

It was the Admiralty that started the industry during the First World War (1914-1918) to be taken over by Stanlee Shipbreaking and Salvage in 1920. This company's first contract was to break up the battleship HMS Duncan in June 1920.

Ownership of the business went through various stages and when the supply of First World War warships to be demolished began to dry up, it was taken over by the Danes from whom it was acquired by Eddie Hill who lived at East Cliff.

Under the Hill's ownership from 1946 the yard became massive, at one stage occupying a site stretching virtually from Athol Terrace to the now disappeared Camber.

But a new dawn was breaking for Dover as the port's ferry operation switched from passenger ships at the Western Docks to car ferries at the Eastern Docks. And Dover Harbour Board wanted the site leased to Dover Industries.

Victor Hill, son of Eddie and then a director of the company, says: "Although we had several years to go on an unexpired lease, Dover Harbour Board, under Cecil Byford, made it clear they had certain powers under port legislation. They could have used what amounted to compulsory purchase."

Anyway the supply of 1939-1945 obsolete warships was drying up and Dover Industries was sold to a national industrial company in 1964.

(About the same time another prosperous and local labour employing workforce, Parker Pens, occupied another nearby site and they too were persuaded to move out).

Mr Victor Hill of Blean near Canterbury adds: "Ironically we won the contract to manufacture and cast the counterweights that were later used for the bridges at the portals for the car ferry berths at the Eastern Docks. They were the days when we had our own two dockside furnaces."

The Dover dockside industry has a remarkable history, especially during the war years of 1914-18 and again in 1939-1945.

Dover men, working for the company, carried out vital tasks along the south coast and further afield in order to salvage scrap for the war effort.

In 1932 and the following year the company's employees were engaged in recovering, from under Dover harbour waters, the remains of the Admiralty monitor HMS Glatton.

HMS Glatton was the Royal Navy's monitor which blew up in 1918 in Dover harbour and had to be sunk, with sailors still on board, to save the town from being destroyed.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the company was busy all along the coast, especially on the Medway, salvaging ships and in September 1941 salvaged the minesweeper HMS Shipmates sunk in Dover harbour. The submerged ship was cut into six sections, the pieces raised and brought ashore to the dockside shipyard.

The company's history tells of other wartime salvaging operations, especially around Newhaven, including work on the invasion barge Tiger abandoned by the Admiralty off Seaford Head. A number of smashed invasion barges were also salvaged.

During the run-up to the Normandy invasion in June 1944, and immediately afterwards, there was much salvage work to be carried out. One task was on motor torpedo boat (MTB 244) hit by a misfired torpedo that sunk the craft in Newhaven harbour. Although the missile failed to explode it had to be raised to the quayside-a task completed by Mr Tom Knight for which he received the BEM.

The company was very busy surveying and reporting on the propellers and shafts of British and American landing craft and MTBs around this time.

Dover Promenade Pier, never financially very successful after its opening in 1893, was dismantled by the company and after the Second World War many of the anti-aircraft guns at Dover, Lydd and Sheerness were dismantled by the Dover shipyard. So was redundant machinery at the four Kent coal mines.

The scrap from the Dover dockside yard was sent to steelworks at Port Talbot, Scotland and north east England. Some of the scrap was also exported.

In the early years the scrap could be seen being carried on trucks hauled along Dover sea front by a smokey steam train before being shipped from the Western Docks.

But all good things come to an end and the business was forced to close in 1964 when there were around 30 people still on the books.

At one stage another salvage company, The Dover Shipbreaking Company, was established in the town with headquarters on the Esplanade, near the clock tower. It did not last long and in 1925 the company was sold to rivals Stanlee Shipbreakers along with four tugs.

Source: Dover Express. 10 May 2012

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