Sir Alfred Yarrow, The Shipbuilder

Details of Alfred Yarrow’s early life (born in London on 13th January 1842), education and apprenticeship with the marine engineering firm of Ravenhill; the foundation of the Civil and Mechanical Engineers’ Society.

Read by Sir Alan Yarrow

SIR ALFRED FERNANDEZ YARROWMy Great Grandfather SIR ALFRED FERNANDEZ YARROW was born in London on 13th January 1842.

Alfred was educated, first, at a school at Holloway, then at Reigate, and finally at University College School. He was a very bright child, sensitive, inquisitive and inventive. His parents were going through very difficult financial times, so he went out to work rather than pursue further academic education.

At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed with the firm Ravenhill, whose business consisted almost entirely of the construction of marine engines for naval vessels.1

He was naturally inquisitive and attended every scientific lecture he could, and in the process became acquainted with Professor Faraday, for whom he had the highest regard. He, along with his close friend Walter Rutt, invented the first private electric telegraph, much to the consternation of their neighbours. Recognised in the Daily News 2nd August 1857.

In 1859, when eighteen, he, with Rutt, James Hilditch and a few others, founded a society – the Civil and Mechanical Engineers’ Society – for the reading and discussion of papers on engineering and kindred subjects. The Society met in Stepney, and later in Cheapside.

On the completion of his apprenticeship, Yarrow, who was then twenty-one years of age, was looking for work. An offer was made by his employers, Ravenhill, of a post in their drawing-office at £100 a year, which he turned down.

The young man was at the time receiving small sums in royalties, payments for drawings and designs, in fees for inspections, and his main ambition was to obtain sufficient capital to launch his inventions and to open a small workshop in which he could execute any orders.

At a time when he did not know in which direction to look for financial resources, he quite unexpectedly received a present of £200 from a maiden aunt and a further contribution – even more unlooked for – of £200 from a black planter in the West Indies, who had been acquainted with his father in Jamaica, to help get him started.

Mr. Ellis, an insurance underwriter, whose lectures he had attended, also unexpectedly came forward with an offer of £1000, or, if that were not enough, £2000 to help to start the workshop. Although the last generous offer was not taken, it was most gratefully acknowledged, and it materially assisted in stimulating Alfred’s efforts.

About the same time, too, Messrs. Coleman, agricultural engineers, of Chelmsford, determined to take up the manufacture and sale of a steam plough which had been patented by Yarrow in conjunction with his friend Hilditch. The Chelmsford firm opened an office in London and agreed to pay Yarrow a salary of £100 a year for looking after it. The royalties on the plough patent
amounted in a few years to some £600, which the inventors divided between them.

About that time, he, again in collaboration with Hilditch, designed and patented a steam carriage for use on the road. The invention was taken up by a Mr T W Cowan, of Greenwich, who agreed to pay a royalty on the vehicles.

One was built and ran between Greenwich and Bromley – a distance of ten miles – once a week, late in the evening. This steam carriage was shown at the International Exhibition of 1862, where it attracted a good deal of attention. It did not, however, receive any award for the somewhat peculiar reason that, the jury deputed to deal with engines considered the exhibit to be a Carriage,
while the jury which had to do with carriages regarded it as an Engine! The vehicle therefore fell between two stools, though both juries wrote to Yarrow and Hilditch stating that they had closely inspected the carriage and that if it had come within their range they would certainly have made an award in its favour.2

Unfortunately, on one occasion the carriage when doing about 25mph met a mounted policeman. The horse took fright and the policeman was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. This led to the Bill of Parliament forbidding the use of steam on the roads unless preceded by a man carrying a red flag.

At the end of two years in charge of Coleman’s London office, Yarrow found himself in possession of a capital of about £1,000, and he felt that the time had come when he could safely set up in business for himself. For this purpose, he entered into partnership with a Mr. Hedley. A small works on the Folly Wall was acquired, in the Isle of Dogs, right next to the London Museum today, consisting of a couple of old cottages and a few broken-down sheds.3

For the first year or so only a few small orders were booked. So far from its being entirely confined to the repair of river craft, as had been intended, it comprised such diverse things as the construction of a thief-proof door; the making and fitting of some overhead travelling pans in a sugar factory; an apparatus for roasting coffee and some match-making machinery. That first
year was a period of great anxiety. During it, and for some time thereafter, Yarrow himself made all the drawings, kept the books, paid the wages, and looked about for orders, while Hedley’s business was to oversee the workshop.

The second year was even more unprofitable than the first. With the object of extending the scope of their operations, the two members of the firm endeavoured to secure work on a larger scale. The result was disastrous, for at the end of the year their books showed a deficit of £2,000. Yarrow’s father wanted him to give in and go through the Bankruptcy Court, but his mother, who had unbounded faith in him, encouraged him to go on.

The time was a turning point in the firm’s career. While still at Ravenhill’s, Yarrow and Hilditch had built a small steam launch called the “Isis” which had proved a source of great enjoyment, and, at the same time looking to find something which might result in profit, Yarrow suddenly had the idea that the building of small steam launches for use on the river might be a good one.

He accordingly inserted an advertisement in the papers and received an order from a Colonel Halpin for a 24ft. steam launch with a cabin to accommodate four passengers. The price was to be £145, and the boat, which took three months to build, actually cost £200….. not a great start.

However, the little craft was a great success. At the end of the summer, Yarrow bought her back for £100 and sold her the same day for £200. At the end of the next summer he again purchased her for £100 and sold her for £300 to a Russian who took her to St. Petersburg.4

For seven years after the first launch, the building of similar craft continued without a pause, and the initial mistake of the costs was not made again. Up to the end of 1875 no fewer than 350 steam launches were built.

5In addition to steam launches for river and similar navigation, the building of special craft for particular services was undertaken. Among the first, of them was the “Ilala” designed for plying on lake Nyassa and among the sandbanks and rocks of the Zambesi, for use in the suppression of the slave trade in East Africa.6

The little boat was a great success and was followed by the “Pioneer,” the “Adventure,” and the “Dove” which were ordered by the British Admiralty. The last-named was propelled by side paddle-wheels and only drew 8in. of water and may be regarded as the ancestor of a long line of a variety of special vessels, particularly those for navigation on rivers abounding in shoals and
rapids which were designed and built by Yarrow at various periods, some of which had stern wheels, and some side wheels.

Later, in 1883, he designed and built to the order of the King of the Belgians, who had acquired the services of Mr. Stanley to explore the Congo, a special vessel for that purpose. The boat was made in sections, which were themselves floating and which, while afloat, could be joined together by bolts and nuts so as to form a complete vessel. When it was needed to transport the sections
over land, wheels were passed under and attached to each section while it was afloat, so that the sections were transformed into wagons which could be drawn along.7

At an earlier period of Yarrow’s history – namely in March, 1874 – “Chinese Gordon,” before proceeding on his first mission to Khartoum, asked him to call on him so that he “might obtain the fullest particulars as to the type of vessel which might prove most useful on the Nile.” In view of the prevalence of the masses of floating vegetation or “sudds” in that river, Yarrow came to the conclusion that screw propulsion was out of the question, and decided to adopt a stern wheel, and he produced a design of boat which could be shipped in sections, each of which was light enough to be carried on a camel’s back.8

The vessels were made, sent out to Khartoum, and put together on the banks of the Nile. They were subsequently used in the defence of Khartoum and were sent down the Nile to meet the relief expedition under Lord Wolseley. They also built the two gunboats “Sultan” and “Sheik”, used by Lord Kitchener in 1897 in the relief of Khartoum.

It would be impossible in such a talk to refer to every one of the other numerous and varied craft which were designed and constructed by Yarrow during his long career. Reference should, however, be made to the stern-wheeler which was built for the King of Burma in 1876; (over 27 boats were ultimately made for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company) to the early battery-operated electric launch which was built in collaboration with Messrs Siemens in 1883; and to the shallow-draught gunboats “Mosquito” and “Herald” built for service on the Zambesi, which were delivered in the short space of twenty-five days from the receipt of the order.9

The types of high-speed vessels with which the name of Yarrow is more particularly identified by the general public, however, are torpedo-boats and destroyers – to give them their shortened title.

The firm’s connection with torpedoes began in the year 1873, when Yarrow mounted a torpedo spar on one of his fast launches.

The first launches specially designed by him to carry torpedoes were ordered by the Argentine Government. That was the beginning, and during the two years 1877 and 1879 orders were received for torpedo craft from the Argentine, Austrian, Chilian, Dutch, French, Greek, Italian, Russian, and Spanish Governments.

The first Yarrow torpedo-boat to be ordered by the British Government was known as the “Admiralty Sample Boat.” A similar order was given to any firm which was considered to possess a reasonable prospect of carrying out the work successfully. Each firm had to guarantee under penalty a speed of 18 knots. The Yarrow boat attained a speed of 21.9 knots, which is said to have been 3 knots in excess of the highest speed attained by any competitive vessel tested under the same conditions.

In 1877 the Russian Government ordered two torpedo boats from Messrs. Yarrow, but, in consequence of the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War, these vessels were not allowed to leave this country and were acquired by the British Admiralty. The terms of payment stipulated for a heavy penalty if a speed of 18 knots was not reached. Yarrow agreed, only if it was a two way deal and a similar premium was granted for anything above that speed being achieved. Actually, the two vessels made 20.8 and 20.6 knots respectively, and the Admiralty had to pay £1,900 in excess of the price.


1. In those days apprentices were allowed, unofficially, in their own time, to work out of hours on their own projects. Whilst there, young Yarrow further extended his experience by spending his Saturday afternoons at the establishment of a jobbing engineer-smith, since the apprentices at Ravenhill’s were not allowed to enter their smiths’ shop.
2. That, however, was cold comfort, and, on the whole, the attempt to introduce self-propelled steam vehicles on common roadways may be looked upon as one of Yarrow’s few failures.
3. A few shipbuilding tools, which had been the property of a former tenant, were rented and put in working order and a small machine shop was built.
4. Thus, although the boat was built at a loss, the firm did well, after all. In fact, if the original loss had not been made good, her construction would have been well worthwhile, for she proved to be the foundation on which was erected one of the most extensive and noteworthy businesses concerned with the design and building of fast steamships of all types – particularly torpedo
craft and vessels for pioneer and general navigation on shallow rivers – that the world has known.
5. Just prior to his first marriage in 1875, it had become evident to Yarrow that his partnership with Hedley didn’t work as smoothly as he wished, and the partnership was dissolved.
6. It was necessary that the vessel should be seaworthy and capable of steaming against a swift current, and that she should be built of light sections which could be disconnected at will and carried many miles through forests when rapids were encountered.
7. “Le Congo” as the vessel was called, which was propelled by a stern wheel, was a great success. 
8. Nothing further was heard of the matter for many months, and then the Governor of the Equatorial Provinces was commissioned by Gordon to order from Yarrow four steamers which should be built to the designs submitted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.