Great Maritime Innovations 1: The Stockless Anchor

December 2023

This episode starts a new mini-series on maritime innovations, and we start with one of the most important: the stockless anchor. A Victorian innovation, the stockless anchor transformed seafaring, making it safer and simpler.

The stockless anchor was a simple but clever design which presented many advantages over traditional anchors. Previous anchors were fitted with a stock: a rod set at an angle to the flukes which dug into the seabed. That rod helped the flukes find the right orientation to bite.

This feature however, caused the anchor to be an awkward shape, requiring davits suspended over the bows to raise or lower them and prevent damage to the hull. The ship also needed an ‘anchor bed platform’ for storing the anchor when not in use.

The stockless anchor didn’t have that rod and the flukes simply pivoted against the main shank. This pivoting action helped the flukes bite and the lack of the stock meant that the anchor was easier to manoeuvre when raising or lowering and could be drawn up into the hawsehole for safe storage. Due to the simple geometrical design of the stockless anchor, it was also capable of free falling through water much faster when it was required.

As with all of the best technological inventions it was simple, manifestly a better design, and required someone with a touch of genius to think it up. That man was William Wastenys Smith. To find out more about this brilliant maritime innovation Dr Sam Willis spoke with William Wastenys Smith’s great-granddaughter, Trish Strachan. This episode includes a number of reports and thank-you letters from leading seamen in the 1880s, sent to Wastenys Smith commenting on the remarkable quality of his new invention.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror podcast. Now one of the joys of presenting this podcast is the emails I receive on a regular basis from all of our excellent listenership. Here is a cracker from Trish Strachan.

    Trish Strachan
    Dear Sam I’ve enjoyed many of your TV programmes, and I’m watching your secrets of the Jurassic Coast today. You’ve shared the Napoli anchor at Branscomb, which is a stockless anchor. My great grandfather William Wastenys Smith invented this stockless anchor in the 1870s and held the patent for it. I have the blueprints, the volumes listing every vessel in the world fitted with this anchor from navies to the Kaiser’s personal yacht and more. You’re welcome to look at this if it’s of interest. Best wishes, Trish.

    Sam Willis
    Brilliant, loved it. So of course I got in touch with Trish who agreed to come on and talk about anchors and her great grandfather that brilliantly named William Wastenys Smith. I love the fact that of his double barreled name one is extremely unusual, Wastenys and the other is extremely normal Smith. He sounds like an interesting chap. I should say that to go with this episode, we’ve made a brilliant little animation explaining a little about the history of anchors and the particular advantages of the stockless anchor. You can find the full video on the Mariner’s Mirror on YouTube and there are clips of it on Tik Tok as well, one of which has been seen nearly a million times. So proof there is a healthy appetite out there for the history of anchors. I’m constantly amazed by and proud of the general public’s appetite for what some might consider obscure history. I’m having none of it. Everyone is clearly interested in the history of anchors give yourselves a big pat on the back. Before we begin, I should at least explain what a stockless anchor is. For those of you who have not yet seen our animation and can’t visualise one. Well, it was a simple but clever design, which presented many advantages over traditional anchors. Previous anchors were fitted with a stock. It was a rod set at an angle to the flukes which were the pointy bits that dig into the seabed. Now having a rod at a right angle to the flutes meant that it helped the flutes find the right orientation to bite. This feature, however, caused the anchor to be an awkward shape, requiring davits suspended over the bows to raise or lower the anchors and prevent damage to the hull in the process. The ship also needed an anchor bed platform for storing the anchor when not in use. The stockless anchor Yes, you guessed it, well, it didn’t have a stock it didn’t have that rod and the flukes pivoted against the main shank. This pivoting action helped the flukes bite and the lack of the stock meant that the anchors were more easy to manoeuvre when raising or lowering and crucially when storing them because they could be drawn up into the hawse hole. Due to the simple geometrical design of the stockless anchor it was also capable of freefalling through water much faster when it was required. As with all of the best technological inventions, it was simple and manifestly a better design and required someone with a touch of genius to think it up. Well that man was William Wastenys Smith. And to tell us more here is his great granddaughter here is Trish.

    Sam Willis
    Trish, thank you very much indeed for joining me this afternoon. It’s a pleasure, Sam. Let’s tell everyone first how we how we got in touch with each other because this is this is the kind of the last of a series of communications. You got in touch and you had something special to show me Tell me what it was. Well, I

    Trish Strachan
    was watching one of your programmes, your visiting, the rivers along the southwest and I saw you stop at a very large anchor. So I got in touch you and say might be of interest to tell you about my great grandfather who invented the stockers anchor. And so we carried on from there.

    Sam Willis
    Yep, and you what you did is you sent me a it was like a kind of classic blueprint. It was on a piece of blue blue paper with white drawings of this stockless anchor. I should say now that I’ve since I was so impressed with this lovely technical drawing of an anchor that I’ve had it animated and we’ve created a wonderful animation of a giant rusty anchor that grows out of the technical drawing. It’s, it’s really good fun. And I’d urge all of our listeners to seek that out. You can find it on Facebook, it’ll be on Instagram, it’ll also be on Tik Tok, and it will be on YouTube. So do please look at that. Tell us about that drawing What did you do? Do you have it just lying around your house?

    Trish Strachan
    No, I am I in fact, I have a whole folder of blueprints of drawings of different size anchors, because our anchors were made to different specifications depending on the ship. My great grandfather was born 1838, he joined the Navy, he was an engineer. And when he left the Navy, he had been a railway engineer. But then he, because his naval experiences, he saw that improvements needed to be made with anchors. And the end it was a family business. So I found all the paperwork. When my father died, and they were boxed, I found a couple boxes of all the paperwork, memorabilia in the warehouse, and took it home and started looking through it and was amazed I always knew about the stockless anchor butI didn’t know anything more than that.

    Sam Willis
    What do you mean by in the warehouse? Is this a warehouse where people made anchors?

    Trish Strachan
    No, we had the anchors made out of steel works a long time. So my great grandfather designed them, drew them up to specify the specifications for each ship. So I’ve got registers of every ship around the world that had them with all the measurements, the weights and any notes as to any details that needed to be added to them.

    Sam Willis
    So they were all kind of custom built. So if someone had a specific ship of a specific size, they got in touch and then and then your great grandfather designed one. Do we know if there was much competition at the time for anchor design? Or was he kind of ploughing a lonely furrow?

    Trish Strachan
    When I researched this is a stockless anchor was invented in 1821. But my great grandfather came up with alterations to this and he he was given the patent in 1871. For his anchor, which then had to be tested go on sea trials. So one of the sea trials or this was living on Tyneside, a, he had to take the anchor all the way to the southern island for the Navy to take out on sea trials. But they also tested them by dropping them from certain heights onto a hard surface to make sure that how strong they were. And then I have got reports from the Naval captains, who compare our anchors to previous anchors and saying what the improvements were and why they were necessary.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, they’re a wonderful, a wonderful resource. I think we might get a few of them read out maybe at the end of this podcast so we can hear them. When did you first start getting interested in this amazing bit of family history.

    Trish Strachan
    I grew up knowing about the stockless anchor, because we’ve got five, six bronze models of the anchors. So I always knew about it, but I and it was one of those things after my father died, that I had the boxes. And I thought one day, I will sort through it and learn a lot more about it. But it was really thanks to you, Sam, that you asked specific questions. So it made me get open the boxes and sort everything out and actually read through them and learn much more about them. Yeah,

    Sam Willis
    I’d had a little search this morning. And I see it’s interesting. You said you’ve got these models of anchors, it seems they were they were a kind of salesman’s tool that they could carry around and show people do you know anything about that?

    Trish Strachan
    They I’ve got two wooden ones, which look hand carved, and they’re in special boxes. So they may well have been as you say, sales tools. But we have we produced anchors from every size. So 1871, the first patent and they went to navies. But in 1885, we, my great grandfather developed the anchor versions for canoes, and for private yachts, and barges. So every sort of size. So I think the salesman’s tools were probably more of an example, because then he went on to exhibit at various industrial exhibitions as well.

    Sam Willis
    Talking about the different sizes of anchors, I find it fascinating because the design clearly works with all sorts of different sizes of ships, and I’ve seen very small ones, but also sort of inconceivably enormous anchors that were made. Do we know if he had much trouble getting the patent through getting it granted to him?

    Trish Strachan
    I’ve haven’t got a lot of paperwork for the initial patent, but I’ve got a lot of letters and testimonials and submissions when it was renewed. These actually submitted to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Wow. So I’ve got I’ve got a lot of detail to do with that. And I’ve also got scrapbooks, of cuttings from newspapers where there have been articles written about the anchor, and there was one competitor in particular who sort of queried it Cornelius Martin. In the Martin’s anchor, but I’ve been in these testimonials, the naval captains have said that they took they tried both them and the Wastenys Smith anchor was more efficient and more reliable. So he did have to keep proving it constantly. And I’ve got certificates for test trials. Constantly being tested.

    Sam Willis
    It’s interesting that you said you had to have it renewed, did a patent run out?

    Trish Strachan
    Yes, it was only for a certain time. So the initial one was in 1871. And then in 1885, it was extended again. But I understand that you could only do that once. So that’s two patents and then after that, it was open to anyone to to copy, but we continued to supply anchors to navies all around the world. And I’ve got all the orders for them. Fantastic.

    Sam Willis
    Yes. Give us some some examples of navies around the world that got your anchors.

    Trish Strachan
    Well, the largest anchors we supplied at the time were 10 tonnes each and they went to HMS Hood, which was sunk by the Bismarck. And then I’ve got letters from Japan, from Japanese Navy, from naval architects who came to stay with my great grandfather on Tyneside, to look at the anchors and then order them for Japanese cruisers. Australia, Canada, I mean, Europe, Asia, all over the world.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating. You mentioned Tyneside as well, because I’ve been up at the Discovery Museum and new the wonderful Discovery Museum at Newcastle recently, where they have a fabulous collection of ship models, and they’ve got models of some of the Japanese ships that they built. And this will have been at exactly that time. And that’s made me want to go back because I’m certain that on the bows of those ships are going to be little beautiful models of your great grandfather’s anchors. I’m going to I’m going to look at that this afternoon and send you photos. That’s very exciting.

    Trish Strachan
    Thank you, I think as well, I’ve got a big brochure. If you get back to Newcastle, there was a special steamship, a revolutionary steamship called the Turbinia. Yeah. Yeah. And we supplied the anchors to that as well.

    Sam Willis
    Ah, so that was Turbinia I’m talking off the top of my head, but I think it was from the name of it the first vessel with a turbine engine.

    Trish Strachan
    Yes. Yes.

    Sam Willis
    Yes. Beautiful, fast, long thing. And actually, the the, the entire vessel is in the inside the Discovery Museum, the main hall as you walk in there, and so it’s a wonderful artefact. That’s right, I’m gonna make sure I look at her anchors as well. So these stockless anchors, could you just tell us a bit? For those people who don’t know what a stockless anchor is? Or what it looks like or how it works? Can you give us a rundown?

    Trish Strachan
    Well, a traditional anchor, which I think most people think of is a sort of a basically a T shape. And it’s a solid one piece. But the problem with that is that they there was no movement in it. So if they got caught on the seabed or on a rock that and they couldn’t release it, they would have to cut the cable and lose the anchor. It was also they then tried to put in the stock, which is the crosspiece at an angle. But that made it very bulky that lay on the deck for storage, whereas a stockless anchor has no crosspiece. And the flukes at the bottom are articulated. So they can move separately from each other. Which means that is more options on our hard sea bottom or a soft sea bottom. And it could cant as well, to release it it also meant that they used less cable. But then my great grandfather went on to develop so that when they weighed anchor, instead of it having to be stored on the on the deck, it would be stored up and then most of the shank of the anchor would go through the hawse as long as the hawse was big enough. So it would lay flat against the side of the ship. Because reading some of the reports that was a one of the problems if ships were moored close to each other, there would be something sticking out and it could bump into damage neighbouring ships as well. The other thing which I never hadn’t thought of, but by being stockless and articulated was that they came in different parts, so that it was easy for a ship to take spares. They didn’t have to replace the whole anchor, they could just replace depending on the sea bottom where they were or any damage. It was easy for them to repair.

    Sam Willis
    It just takes a little glance of it to know that it’s a brilliant, brilliant design. And I suppose the corresponding size of that is if you go to HMS Victory, for example, and you have a look at the state of her anchors. I can’t quite believe it took people this long to work out how to design one because You know, Victory’s anchors are colossal, and also incredibly bulky. They have to be hauled up with these kind of cat heads on the side, and then you can’t store them because every time you turn it round, there’s another thing at a right angles sticking out. very cumbersome indeed. Exactly I think there’s something nicely modern about the design of the stockless anchor as well. It looks, it looks very beautiful. I

    Trish Strachan
    think it does it’s sleek, isn’t it? Yeah.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. Can you tell me anything about how he got the prototype made? Orthat early process of proving his anchor design was successful?

    I’ve got all his diaries, but unfortunately, I can’t I find them very difficult to read because they, as in those days, they wrote so horizontally, and then vertically across a criss cross. Yep, yes. So it’s difficult to read. So all I’ve got are his records and his reports of the tests of them, and then all the different trials that they were sent to commercial shipping, as well as naval shipping to try them. And they would, then the captain’s would have to take them away for a few weeks and test them on their voyages.

    Sam Willis
    I tell you what Trish one of the things we have with the Mariner’s Mirror podcast is a very large number of extremely interested very kind, generous people, many of which are very, very good at reading old handwriting. Oh, and I suspect that if we gave them a challenge of helping to decipher William Wastenys Smith’s diaries, then we would definitely get some some positive responses. I’ve looked at diaries before when, as you say that you have writing one way and then writing another way, it’s almost impossible. But it’s, it’s like one of those 3d drawings. So once you stare at it long enough, suddenly, it all begins to make sense. And I reckon we’d get a good result. So let’s, let’s see, that’d be really good. Yeah, let’s get a call out and see if we can find out a little bit about this early stage of it because when looking at the history of and because there really isn’t much written about it. And, and certainly not about specific anchors. So I think we’re sitting on a bit of a goldmine of original history there. Maybe we can get someone to do a PhD in the development of the stockless. Anchor, that’d be very exciting.

    Well, I’ve got all the material because I’ve got every single anchor that was made. It went on the Kaisers. Yacht to the the Imperial Portuguese government ordered them the Russian government. Oh, Mr. Vanderbilt, his the biggest yacht ever built at that time in America, he he ordered them as well. So they’ve been all over the world. Yeah.

    Sam Willis
    So in terms of the impact the effect of his design, Can Can we can we say anything broadly about about what that did? Well,

    I think the fact that you still see them today, I mean, when we were in Portsmouth, and we saw the Queen Elizabeth, the new aircraft carrier, their anchors still look like this. There’s still the stockless anchor, which is, you know, they hadn’t really apart from tweaks and and he kept on in making little improvements in his lifetime. So but the general design is still the same, which makes me very proud.

    Sam Willis
    good. Well, I’m delighted sohave you got any nice portraits of William Wastenys Smith around standing next to one of his anchors, or was he one of these these people who kind of vanished in time without any, any visual kind of similarities?

    Yes, we’ve got paintings that he did when he was in the Navy, he painted the islands and we’ve got his charts that he drew on his naval journeys. But I think he was one of these very private people. He had a big family to support and he just worked. family memories are of quite a severe person just that’s all he did was concentrate on his business, but he loved horses. He didn’t have time for sports. He loved horses, my great Aunt remembered going to see him and he always had sugar lumps in the pocket in his tailcoat to give his horses.

    Sam Willis
    That’s very sweet. He sounds like a bit of an anchor of a person, himself a very solid, very strong man, but it’s always nice to know he had some some sugar lumps in his pockets. Trisha, it’s a wonderful story. I think we’re going to try and open this up and find out more about it and the history of anchors because they’re so important to maritime safety. I mean, you can’t, you can’t have a successful maritime world and all the trade we see now without dependable anchors, and I think it really does need a bit more investigation.

    Just what you said just then was exactly how he opened his application for the initial patient actually, was to the safety. He said, so many lives were lost at sea because of faulty anchors. And that was one of his driving forces for developing the anchor for safety and loss of life. That’s

    Sam Willis
    fascinating and I’m not surprised but it’s also a good way of making a strong argument for, for the need for something new to make people stand up and listen, I guess that was the real problem with them getting a patent registered, you have to get people to realise that it matters enough to grant a patent. Fascinating stuff.

    Trish Strachan
    Oh, I just thought one of the I was looking through though, because I like people’s stories. And one of the nice anecdotes that I have was his diary. When he was in the Navy. He was in the Pacific station, going from Valparaiso up to Vancouver, in the 1860s. And he describes this thing, Vancouver. And he wasn’t very impressed because he said, There’s tree stumps, we’re still along the main street, where they’d cut them down to create to make Vancouver and I just thought Vancouver is such a big international city. Now. I like that, that visual image.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating. And I also like the fact that he didn’t like it, because I think he was quite a neat person to design an anchor without a stock, you’re very good at seeing things which are superfluous and in the way and not necessary. And I think that’s what he was doing walking around the streets of Vancouver. It’s a wonderful story. So what we’re doing now, I think we will have some of these letters read out right now.

    Sam Willis
    Among Trishes archives are some truly fantastic letters written to William Wastenys Smith by naval officers from all over the world who are trying out his anchors and reporting back. Here’s a few of my favourites. This one is an anonymous one

    Sam Willis
    from the Navigating commander of one of HM ships.

    We were three years on station, and we invariably used your anchor, in preference to the Admiralty anchor. On account of the shallow water. We rode out several pamperos with the single anchor. All I know is that during Pamperos, we have ridden at single anchor, when other vessels have their anchors down and dragged. To show the value of a stockless anchor my present ship has lost two anchor stocks lately, and temporarily lost an anchor by cable getting round the stock and becoming wrenched to breaking strain

    Sam Willis
    From the commander of one of HM ships.

    With regard to your stockless anchor I always come to and I anchor with it. As on my first using it I found what a good bite it had on waiting. I’ve never had a foul anvhor with it, and I believe in its holding powers.

    Sam Willis
    From the captain of one of the largest vessels in HM Navy,

    Your anchor was considered a very good one for a turret ship by us and we preferred it to the Martins. I made an official report of it, in which I said that we had ridden out an unusually heavy typhoon by it with only 50 fathoms of chain out. We dragged 500 yards in about 10 hours of darkness. But you will understand that to be with only 50 fathoms out in 12 to 14 fathoms of water was bad seamanship, and would never have been done, but for the proximity of another vessel, and the fact that during another typhoon when more chain was used, and a second anchor let go, the precaution was not needed. On the occasion I speak of there was no heavy sea, and we were more sheltered. But the wind was extremely violent, and one of her majesty’s ships dragged across the harbour with three anchors down. It is now desirable that catting and fishing should be abolished, and the anchor hove right up into our anchor chamber, where they would be secure and whence they could be let go. So a stockless anchor, if efficient, would have great advantages.

    Sam Willis
    From R. Inglis of Cunard received January 1884 and 1885.

    I can testify to the very excellent qualities of your anchor, and say that in my judgement, it is the best anchor ever made. I have the testimony of our captain of the steam tender Shermersher to the effect that he has worked your anchor ever since the vessel came round from Glasgow and that it is the best anchor he ever had to do with. It never fails to bite the ground and never drags. He says with 45 fathoms of cable, he never has any anxiety however hard It blows in whatever or however strong the tide may be.

    Sam Willis
    Thank you all so much for listening now don’t forget to check out this video and all the other great videos on the Mariner’s Mirror podcast’s YouTube channel. Please also leave us a review on whatever app you are listening to us on particularly if you have an iPhone please leave a review on iTunes. It really really helps the more ratings we have the podcast becomes easier to find more people can learn about maritime history and that is of course why we are here. And if you do leave a review I will read it out here is one from TBEBCM. All things maritime something for everyone. What a fantastic podcast. Thank you very much. Each episode presents a different and often overlooked aspect of maritime history with fascinating guests and a lively conversation. Although some subjects are quite technical, they’re always explained. So not only are you being entertained, you also learn a thing or two as well. Definitely recommended for those in love with the sea and its history. Five stars. Well, thank you very much indeed for that. Here’s another one from FLK2013. Titanic inquiry series. Just wanted to say briefly that the Titanic inquiry miniseries is very interesting and well made. Five stars. Well, thank you very much for those reviews. Please don’t forget that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and do all that you can please to check out what those brilliant institutions are up to you can find the Society for Nautical research at snr.org.uk where you can join up, you don’t have to pay there is a free level of membership. But I would encourage you to part with a few pounds because it’s entirely worth it is a wonderful way not only of finding out all about maritime history from the very best in the world, but also a wonderful way to meet people, and the Heritage and Education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation you can find at hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. And I’d encourage you please to check out the latest brilliant project Maritime Innovation in Miniature filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment. It really is astonishing.

Category: | |