Shipbuilding and the Calpe – Curaçao – the first Steamship to cross the Atlantic

Cinque Port ship - c13th cent as it appears on the Arms of Dover

Cinque Port ship – c13th cent as it appears on the Arms of Dover

Dover, from ancient times, was synonymous with shipbuilding. Indeed, during the late Saxon and the medieval period the Cinque Ports virtually built all the ships used by the various monarchs. Further, in 1355 the mayors of the Cinque Ports were authorised to press carpenters and others with the necessary skills to build and repair ships. In 1440, Henry VI granted a Charter to encourage Dover shipbuilders, stipulating that the ships were to be ‘sure, strong, of good and true material as well as in wood as in all sorts of iron work.’

Shakespeare Beach - looking towards Shakespeare Cliff.

Shakespeare Beach – looking towards Shakespeare Cliff.

At the time the town’s main harbour was at the east end of the bay, under the cliffs where the swimming pool/sports centre are today. However, due to rock falls and other problems by the end of the Middle Ages, the harbour was of little use. Some of the seafarers carried on building ships near the old harbour, but slowly the move was to the west, under Archcliffe Point, where a new harbour was established. Eventually, what is now known as Shakespeare Beach was given over to shipyards. By the late 17th century, these shipbuilders had perfected their techniques such that their ships were described as the ‘Pride of Europe’.

The men who built these ships were also the cream of Dover’s society. Typically, was the Cullin/Cullen family. Thomas Cullin was the Mayor of Dover in the years 1641 and 1642; William Cullin was Mayor in the years 1651, 1652 and part of the year 1658. He was also Dover’s MP, elected in 1654. Nicholas Cullin was Dover’s Mayor in 1680, 1681 and 1682 and in his Will gave a house and land on the then Victualling Quay with the annual income to be distributed every New Year’s Day to 20 poor widows of the parish. Possibly due to the demands of shipbuilding, no other Cullins stood for the council until November 1890. That year William Cullin was elected to represent Pier Ward and held the seat for three years.

Dover shipbuilders earned greater esteem during the Napoleonic Wars (1799 -1815) by meeting the massive increase in demand at the same time as maintaining their high quality. In 1803, there were 40 shipyards recorded on Shakespeare Beach run by local craftsmen such as the Cullin family, Divine, Duke, Gilbee, Gravener, Hedgecock, Hubbard, Johnson, Kemp, Kennett, King, Large, Pascall, Pilcher, Walker and Worthington. Much of the timber used for these sailing ships came from the forests around Lyminge, Elham and Lydden.

Calpe later renamed the Curaçao - the first steam ships to cross the Atlantic. Dover Harbour Board

Calpe later renamed the Curaçao – the first steam ships to cross the Atlantic. Dover Harbour Board

In 1823, the Monarch, one of the country’s earliest steam ships, was built on Shakespeare Beach. She was 100 tons and her engines nearly forty horsepower. Not long after the slightly larger Sovereign was built on the Beach. Then, in 1825, the Calpe was built by J.H. & J Duke, for the American and Colonial Steam Navigation Company. She was 134-feet (40.9 metres) in length, with a displacement of 438 tons. She was powered by a Maudslay 2-cylinder side-lever engine with a capability of 8mph but together with boilers, weighed more than 100 tons.

At the time, across the Channel, the Dutch were also building two steam-powered ships. One for service in the Far East, and the other in the West Indies. The first ship was fitted with Cockeril engines that were too heavy and following test the contract was withdrawn. Impressed by Dover’s shipbuilding expertise, the King ordered the Royal Netherlands Navy to buy one built here. The Calpe had just been launched but instead of going to the American company, she was sold to the Netherlands Royal Navy in October 1826 and renamed Curaçao.

The Curaçao was commissioned as ‘a man of war’ but without arms and with berths available for private passengers. She made her maiden trip to Hellevoetsluis, near Rotterdam. There she was loaded with 400 tons of coal, mail, valuable freight and private passengers and embarked on 26 April 1827 for the Dutch West Indies. She arrived at Paramaribo, Suriname (northern South America) on the 24 May and according to one account used her engines for 11 days, while another states that they were used throughout the journey.

Her next port of call was her namesake, the island of Curaçao (Dutch Antilles), where she took on fresh water. On 6 July, she embarked for the return trip arriving in Rotterdam on 4 August. For the first 22 days the crossing was made under steam but due to combined saline scale in the boiler plus boiler leakage causing overheating and then broken paddles, the last week was under sail. Nonetheless, the Curaçao was recognised by many as the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean under steam and both ways!

In 1828, the Curaçao made a second and in 1829 a third crossing of the Atlantic, which should have secured her claim to fame. Sadly, other ships have wrongly been given that accolade. As for the Curaçao, she remained part of the Royal Netherlands fleet as a man-of-war until 1848, when she was sold for 9,500 florins and replaced by a second ship of the same name.

As for Dover’s golden age of shipbuilding, this was drawing to a close. In 1843, the South Eastern Railway Company built a track that ran along the edge of Shakespeare Beach to their newly opened Town Station. This, as William Batcheller wrote at the time, ‘… will clear away Beach Street, the whole of Seven Star Street, which will include nearly all the shipwrights in Dover, not even excepting Mr Duke, whose residence will also come down.’ James Duke, the builder of the Curaçao, asked the Railway Company to pay him £9,000 in compensation. The Company declined and a subsequent court hearing saw the amount reduced to £4,050.

 Wellington Dock - Slipway 1970. Dover Library

Wellington Dock – Slipway 1970. Dover Library

The shipbuilders, including the Dukes and the Cullins, moved to premises around the refurbished Wellington Dock that was formerly opened on the 13 November 1846. A national trade directory of 1855 gives Dover’s main trades as, shipbuilding, sail and rope making, papermaking and corn grinding. Some 40-50 shipbuilders worked alongside the dock. In 1850 a slipway, capable of handling vessels up to 175-feet (53.34 metres) in length and up to 800-tons dead-weight was built.

The slipway was 567 feet (173 metres) long and the length of the cradle was 175feet (53 metres) and stone lined. It was lengthened, strengthened and widened in 1883 and the last ship to be ‘slipped’ was the Admiral Day, the Dover Harbour Board’s dredger, in 1993. In 1868 the Fairbairn Hand Cranked Crane was erected and can still be seen – it is a designated Ancient Monument. This enabled ships to be lifted out of the dock for repairs.

Fairbairn hand cranked crane 1868. Wellington Dock.

Fairbairn hand cranked crane 1868. Wellington Dock.

However, due to the increasing tonnage of the steam ships, the lack of an adequate dry dock and most importantly, a shortage of capital finance the number of Dover shipbuilders were in decline. The last wooden vessel was built in 1878. By 1899 there were just two ship builders listed, J A and E S Beeching and W J Cullin and Sons both on Cambridge Road. Cullin’s shipyard abutted the Wellington Dock slipway, which was convenient for carrying out ship repairing and building. The firm also had a fleet of fishing smacks. By 1909, only B Cullin was listed as a Dover shipbuilder. In 1997, Dover Harbour Board filled in slipway for the De Bradelei Wharf development, but the carriage lines can still be seen. In the same development Cullins Yard restaurant opened on the site of the former Cullin’s shipyard.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 8 July 2010

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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