Runcorn Boat and Ship Building

Hello again people and pooches. Joe the Cocker here. Me and my human personal assistant have been staying local still due to the pandemic restrictions for you humans. I could walk anywhere that I want to but, while the humans have to wear muzzles, I will put up with walking from our front door. My dad has an interest in the history of our town while I have an interest in hedgerows, trees and lampposts. Apparently, Runcorn used to be known for its boat building industry, particularly Mersey Flats. I thought that a Mersey Flat was an apartment in one of The Decks or Churchill Mansions. My human said that I am a numpty because a Mersey Flat is or was a type of boat that was used on the River Mersey to transport cargo to shore from ocean going ships. How was I to know that? Human language is so confusing with the same word used to describe different things. At least a bark is specific and is easily understood by us pooches, anyway.

Yours truly at Wigg Island
Ornate panel at Ferry Hut

We left home to walk to Wigg Island firstly, so that I could burn off some steam! My human was busy photographing the wrecked flats in the sandbanks. This wasn’t really a place associated with building ships rather a graveyard for some of the Mersey Flats. So, after some zoomies we left the island over the Old Quay Swingbridge.

Shipyards were dotted along the bank of the Mersey before the Ship Canal’s construction
CNV00074
The wreck of the Dennis Brundrit off the Falkland Islands – photo by – Bob Ratcliffe – Flickr

We left the Old Quay Swingbridge and walked along the side of the Manchester Ship Canal toward the Runcorn Docks area. This is where the majority of the town’s boat and ship building took place. Over one thousand ships, boats, flats, tugs and barges were built in the Runcorn Shipyards. The largest ship to be built in Runcorn was the Dennis Brundrit, a 462 ton fully rigged sailing ship. Launched in 1866 by Brundrit and Whiteway, it was later wrecked off the Falkland Islands, where it can still be seen to this day.

The walk for me was mainly on-lead as we were walking through streets. I don’t mind this as my human always lets me have a run where it is safe. I always get two walks every day with one of them usually a blast around a field. So, I have learned to be patient (well sometimes, anyway).

Cheshire. Sheet XXIV 3
Runcorn 1874 showing shipyards – Cheshire Archives – Flickr

The main type of vessel built in Runcorn were the Mersey Flats that served the area for a couple of centuries. The Mersey Flats were a double ended sailing barge with a flat bottom. They carried roughly 80 tons of cargo and were usually 65 feet long by 16 feet wide with a 6 foot draught. They came in single and double mast variants and were used initially on the rivers then later on the Manchester Ship Canal. Once a common sight on in the area, the flats became redundant as the Manchester Ship Canal grew in popularity. The Mersey in the area is tidal with huge sandbanks meaning that much care and attention was needed to navigate the Runcorn and Widnes areas. In 1852, there were 400 Mersey Flats working just on the River Weaver and within 100 years only 50 were working in the whole Mersey area.

Abels Boatyard
Abel’s Boatyard – photo – Frank – Flickr
12th August 2020. Old shipyard launch ramps at Runcorn, Cheshire.
Shipyard remains by Old Quay – photo – Barnsley Victor – Flickr
Shipyard remains

Along the stretch of the Manchester Ship Canal that we walked, there were many shipyards. Castle Rock Yard was originally where Runcorn Gap was eventually crossed by the railway bridge. A Blue Plaque has been positioned on the leg of the bridge to commemorate the shipyard. Abel’s Yard was at the side of the Transporter Bridge at Ferry Hut. Brundrit’s built along the Mersey Road area with Stubbs operating from the Old Quay Yard. Others include John Anderton, Anderton and Le Couter, and Speakman and sons.

Shore leave !
Oakdale – Photo by 70023venus2009 – Flickr
Mossdale (1)
Mossdale – Photo by Neil Harvey 126 – Flickr

Only two Mersey Flats are still in existence. The Oakdale, commenced construction in 1949 and launched two years later, by Abel’s Yard and was the last sea-going vessel to be built in Runcorn. It is now beached in Askam-in-Furness, where its current owner is renovating and repairing the vessel. The other flat, Mossdale, can be seen at the Elesmere Port Boat Museum. This smaller boat was built in Chester but, later refitted at Abel’s in Runcorn. The last ever Mersey Flat to be built was the Ruth Bate, which has since been scrapped.

Wreck of the Abel Mersey Flat off Wigg Island
Wreck of the Eustace Carey Mersey Flat off Spike Island, Widnes

Wrecks of Mersey Flats can be seen at low tide in the river off Wigg Island and at Spike island in Widnes. Some were deliberately scuppered or dismantled in the river to help to control the tide.

Captain Smith
Captain Ted Smith – photo – David Valenzuela – Flickr

Another unrelated piece of shipping history in the town is that of Captain Edward (Ted) John Smith, the fated captain of the Titanic used to spend time in the town. His mother lived in the town until her death. She is buried in the cemetery in Greenway Road. The captain used to frequent the Waterloo Hotel and the Navigation Inn. A touch ironic when his ship did not navigate the icebergs on that infamous day in 1912, sinking and killing over 1500 people, on its maiden voyage.

Castlerock Shipyard Blue Plaque
Blue Plaque

2 thoughts on “Runcorn Boat and Ship Building

  1. This has answered a question for me, as I’ve often wondered what the remaining wood was in the water at Wigg Island. I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was an old jetty, or boat. Now I know. Many thanks for this interesting blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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