W.J.Yarwood & Sons Shipbuilders

Following our article on “Lawrence of Arabia” we now tell the story of W.J.Yarwood & Sons Ltd., Shipbuilders of Northwich, 1896-1966. Readers will recall that “Lawrence” (his full name was Thomas Edward Lawrence) worked for a brief spell at Yarwood’s in 1934, apparently to oversee for the Air Ministry, the fitting out of H.M.S. Auxiliary “Aquarius”, the most up-to-date vessel of its type.

Intriguing though it was, Lawrence’s visit to Yarwood’s was nothing more than a cameo, however, in the history of an inland shipbuilding company whose name spread throughout the world.

The company founder, William James Yarwood was born in 1851 and after serving an apprenticeship with ironfounders in Northwich, he was appointed as a blacksmith with the River Weaver Navigation. In 1896 he became the proprietor of the former John Thompson shipbuilding business, based on the west bank of the River Weaver, a few hundred yards from the town centre of Northwich.

Through its salt trade and river connection to Liverpool, Northwich had long been involved with shipbuilding, but it was W.J. who really forged the town’s reputation in the trade for craftsmanship and reliability.

Orders quickly began to come in and by 1900. fifteen vessels had been built and delivered to the likes of the Manchester Ship Canal Co., Douglas Corporation (Isle of Man) and Brunner Mond Co. Ltd.. Other contracts followed with the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board, the Port of London, the Sudanese Government, the United Africa Company and the Booker Line.

Vessels built at Yarwood’s were eventually sent all over the world, from Brazil to West Africa, and from India to Gibraltar.

When W.J. died in 1926, to be succeed by his four sons, Yarwood’s had expanded to such an extent that it could produce almost every component to build sea-going ships, from steam engines to propellers and anchors. During the Second World War, the yard built over 100 vessels for the Admiralty and the Air Ministry.

Coastal vessels for Brunner Mond Co. (later I.C.I.) formed an important part of the Yarwood’s business from 1903 to 1948. These are still referred to nostalgically as “Brunners”. The first was built by John Thompson and the later ones mostly took the names of Mid-Cheshire villages, Anderton, Davenham, Weaverham, Wincham, Comberbach, Cuddington, Barnton. The “Cuddington” is preserved at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum.

In 1947 the yard was sold to Athel Line Ltd, a subsidiary of United Molasses, and between 1955 and 1965 built 32 steam and diesel-powered tugs, the first for service on the River Niger. Other vessels went to Aden, Australia, the West Indies and, of course, to home waters.

The last vessel to be built at Yarwood’s, in 1965, was a 168-ton diesel tug, the St Elmo. It was designed for towing duties at Valetta, Malta and because of the narrowness of the River Weaver it had to be launched sideways . It still operates in the Grand Harbour under the name Katrin.
When the yard closed Yarwood’s had completed over 1,000 vessels.

• 'The Shipbuilders Apprentice', by Ken Evans. One man's memories of the famous Northwich shipyard - 80 pages, A5 Paperback. Available from CC Publishing, £6.00 + £1.00 postage, Martins Lane, Hargrave, Chester, CH3 7RX. Tel: 01829 741651.

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