Building HMS Terror

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  • #21543
    Sam Willis
    Keymaster

    In the latest episode of the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast I discuss the history of HMS Terror. One interesting question remains outstanding – she was built in Topsham but where exactly was the yard? As we hear in the podcast there was shipbuilding all along the Exe. Can anyone help us unpick the maritime history of Topsham, and its shipbuilding locations?

    #21551
    Sam Willis
    Keymaster

    I’ve had this reply from Ed Williams-Hawkes…

    All records state Terror was built in ‘Topsham’ with no specified yard. Ships built upstream, in the two Countess Wear yards: Glass House (aka Gut) and the slightly upstream Gulpit (aka Were, Wear, Gullpit) although part of Topsham, were all specifically registered as ‘Gulpit’, ‘Were’ or ‘Glasshouse’.

    The four yards in lower Topsham at this time: Upper (aka Higher, Passage, Davy’s, Holman’s, Furlong), Strand (aka Bishops, Sanfords, Owens, and Strand Court), Lower Strand (Rising’s, Ayles’, Tideways, Anchor House) and Rivers-meet (aka Owen’s, Davy’s) were all registered and Gazetted solely as ‘Topsham’. I think we can therefore safely discount the two Countess Wear yards as the building place.

    In 1989 I pondered this mystery and tried to find the answer. Francis Luscombe arranged a meeting, at Rivers-meet with Clive Ponsford, considered the most knowledgeable historian of Topsham’s shipbuilding. Ponsford thought Terror was likely to have been built at Higher Passage Yard, but admitted he had no proof and that it was possibly elsewhere, in another Topsham yard.

    The currently promulgated ‘fact’ is that Terror was built at Davy’s Higher Yard (Furlong). My thoughts are that she may well have been built at Rivers-meet, Strand Yard, Bishop’s Quay (Strand Court), or even Lower Strand Yard (Anchor House).

    Francis Davy was the son of shipbuilder Robert. He was also a senior member of the National Seagull Protection League, and was the subject of a public libel for his political left-wing radicalism in the local press by the more privileged Earl of Egremont. Writing after his father Robert’s death in 1862, he refers to the busiest time of Topsham shipbuilding (i.e when the Terror was built):

    ‘At one period Mr. Davy had ships building at one place and the other of various tonnage amounting on the whole to upwards of 1800 tons. He (Robert Davy) was so exact and prompt in completing his Government contracts within the time specified, that he never had any complaint, while many others were fined most heavily. But when the Government offered handsome premiums per day during the hottest part of the war, just prior to the close of it, about say 1812 to 1815, to all those who would complete their contracts prior to the time stated, he received very large sums in that shape having finished all his ships more or less before the time. The Admiralty offered him, as a mark of appreciation, several more ships to build, and sent men to survey the river to induce him to go on; but, in consequence of his health at this period (about 1815-16) getting rather indifferent together with his eyesight beginning to fail, he declined the offer.’

    Importantly Francis also states above that his father, Robert, used more than one yard during the 1813 era when he was building more than 1800 tons. He also implies that Robert was the power house of the business and that Naval contracts were refused, as he was “getting rather indifferent”; rather than entrust new contracts to his second son and business partner, Daniel Bishop Davy, he stopped warship building in 1814. Robert knew the secret of growth and also the enticing danger of over trading. After Robert’s retirement, due to blindness, his younger sons, Francis and Samuel became partners, in 1834, joining second son, Daniel, who had already partnered his father, for a number of years. The family partnership was dissolved 10 years later, in 1844, when Francis built Rivers-meet and Daniel a few years later built Grove Hill. Robert’s eldest son, also named Robert (b.1795-1870), was a barrister and lived in Ringwood. He was the only son to marry and have children, all daughters. With the decline in wood and sail shipbuilding, the Davy sons soon sold out their yards and lime kilns and invested in railway development. There are reports of 4 Davy-built ships being sent “downriver in one tide”.

    If the statement is correct it must have been in 1813 – the ships, Vesuvius, Clinker, Adder and Terror, were launched between 1st May and 15th July 1813. A local press report from the time suggests that one of the four mentioned above – Vesuvius – sailed alone to Portsmouth. This meant she had been at least partially rigged in the Exe with a Captain on board: maybe that is why she was called a sloop (ketch) when I believe she was commissioned (27th September 1813) with 3 masts, fully rigged. The Skipper, a local boy, John Parker, who retired as a Rear Admiral, was obviously impressed with the shipbuilding efforts of Davy as, on his retirement, he commissioned Robert to build two schooners for his son, John Jnr. for coastal trading; the Mary (1816) and the Britannia (1822).

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