Wednesday, February 15 2023
This article was written for the Rewriting into Maritime History project by Dr Helen Doe, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and Vice-Chairman of the British Commission of Maritime History. It tells the story of Mrs Frances Barnard who became a naval shipbuilder in the early 19th century.
In 1804 the government, concerned with the urgent need to build up the naval strength in the war with France, commissioned a survey of the number of shipwrights in Britain and Ireland. Keeping the building of the largest vessels, the first or second rates, with the naval shipyards, the Navy Board contracted with an ever widening number of merchant builders during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The survey found the average size of a shipbuilding yard was 16 shipwrights but the Thames shipbuilders stand out in scale. The largest yard in the country was Perry Wells with 140 men and the second largest was listed as ‘Messrs Barnet and Roberts’ at Deptford Green on the Thames with a workforce of 117 men. The parliamentary report writer was in error. The correct title of the firm was Mrs Frances Barnard, Son and Roberts. 
Building under contract for the navy could be lucrative, but could bring financial ruin when prices were pared too close, material costs went up on fixed contracts or the size of the job was underestimated. Yet there was no shortage of merchant builders keen to build warships. Shipbuilders constantly lobbied for contracts and to ensure that the Navy Board knew of their existence, however the process normally began with a formal advertisement with an invitation to tender. Competition was intense. A total of 140 tenders were received by the Navy Board between October 1809 and September 1813 and just twenty-one percent were successful. 
Once the contractor was selected a payment was made by the Navy Office on signing the contract to begin the work, subsequent payment stages were ‘when the floors are all crossed and keelson bolted’, ‘when the frame bends are up’, ‘when the ship is timbered’, ‘when the lower deck beams are in’, ‘when the middle deck are in and kneed’ and ‘when the upper deck and roundhouse is laid’. All of this was done under the watchful eye of the navy overseer placed in the yard. The final payment was after the ship had been launched, surveyed by the King’s yard and pronounced fit for purpose. 
All of these stages required careful management of supplies and payments. The men’s work on the ship had to be managed around other pressing matters, such as a non government customer requiring urgent repairs. Bankruptcy was a common problem in shipbuilding and was often the result of shipbuilders over reaching themselves and then being forced into bankruptcy by the timber merchants who were their largest creditors. Dealing with the Admiralty was not easy. While the potential gains were large, so also was the bureaucracy and the Navy Board had the power of a major customer and used it. Barnard’s yard had severe problems in August 1784 when William Barnard, Frances’ husband, gave notice that the two 74-gun ships, Tremendous and Majestic were ready for launching. The board wished to delay launching (and final payment) until 1785 so Barnard laid out the severe and expensive consequence of this. The fire insurance for the two vessels at a cost of £20,000 per ship was due to expire in November and December 1784. His contract to build two further vessels on the same slipways would be severely delayed and his payments to his timber suppliers had to be met.  The ships were eventually launched many months later. 
Frances inherited the business from her husband when he died just after this correspondence in 1795. William left his complete estate to Frances and appointed her sole executrix; his eldest son William was aged nineteen and still an apprentice. This was a heavy responsibility, Barnard’s was one of the foremost yards on the Thames. William did not consider setting up a trust with some experienced male trustee and neither did he make any specific reference to his two sons in relation to the business, the whole of William’s estate was ‘for her absolute use and benefit and disposal’. 
Immediate steps had to be taken to reassure customers that it was business as usual. The Navy Board was informed in a letter from William Barnard junior of the death of his father. The letter made it clear that his mother was in charge and that when he and his brother had served their apprenticeships they would be ‘in a situation to join her’. Further reassurance was given that she had the assistance of a ‘very able foreman who served his time to my father and who has acted as a foreman under him upward of twenty years’, thus satisfying any concerns there might be in the board’s mind about the changes. Careful though this letter was to allay any male prejudices, the business name was changed to Mrs Frances Barnard and Sons. 
Trust was a vital element in commercial success. The customers had to have faith in the honesty and integrity of the shipbuilder; first because comparatively large sums of money were involved, and second because the ship represented a significant ongoing investment that could only be realised if it was well built and with good sailing qualities. For the customer it was impossible to check the shipwright’s bill. These points were made by witnesses to a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1813. ‘The fact is when you put a ship into a builder’s hands, a respectable man, you put her into his yard and you have every confidence in him, and he goes on with repairs; you have a surveyor to see the work is well done, but you have no check whatever on the number of men employed, or time, at all.’  The witness, Larkins a London shipowner, was pressed on this point by the Select Committee who queried ‘You therefore must rely entirely on the person who contracts?’ ‘On the honour and integrity of the person who contracts.’ replied Larkins.  As in all complicated and technical projects, even with the most careful of checks or the use of specialist surveyors, at the end of the day the customer had to rely on his choice of contractor and let him, or in some cases her, get on with the job for which they were paid. 
While Frances may have had a good foreman to run the technical aspects and buy materials and hire men, she alone had to make the key decisions. Managing the business had not been an easy task and one particular project in 1795 was costly and problematic. The York, was an East Indiaman that had been purchased on the stocks by the Navy Board and was to be converted into a warship.  The alteration was not straightforward and delays had occurred due to problems with the sawyers.  Frances survived this early difficulty and in 1798 expanded her yard, buying an additional site and establishing a mast yard at Rotherhithe.  Between 1804 and 1812 Barnard’s yard built 20 naval ships, 14 merchant ships and repaired 717. They were one of the top three yards in capacity together with Wigram and Dudman. In 1811 the number of men employed was 209 shipwrights, 28 caulkers, 59 sawyers, 21 joiners, 56 blacksmiths and 15 labourers. These numbers would fluctuate depending on the work available.  At their height they employed over 350 men and between 1804 and 1813 the amount of tonnage built by Barnard’s exceeded any other yard. 
Frances’ two sons had come of age in 1797 and 1799 and in 1801 she added another partner, Thomas Roberts. It is possible that he was the foreman mentioned in William Barnard junior’s letter of 1795. William died aged twenty-nine in 1805 and her second son, Edward George Barnard, was now the third partner in the business which was renamed F & E G Barnard and Roberts. The published history of the Barnard business struggles with the concept of a woman running such a large business and believed that she became ‘de facto senior partner’, but doubted whether she played an active part in day to day affairs. The fact that Frances moved away from the yard in 1803 to a grand house and estate in Mitcham is used as proof of the latter.  But her move to Mitcham did not occur for eight years after her husband’s death, during which time, while Frances was living at the yard, Barnard’s did extensive business by launching twelve ships for the navy and nine ships for the East India Company. 
So aged sixty four, having seen the business through the potentially difficult times after the death of William senior and once she had an additional business partner to share the load, Frances felt able to remove herself from the noise and bustle of the yard although she remained in charge financially. Barnard’s continued to build navy and East India ships, but the last vessel for the navy was the Pactolus in 1813.  There then followed a difficult time for shipyards as the peace in 1815 brought an end to navy contracts. The result was a great loss of business and only half the yards were to survive with just eight yards eventually moving into steam. The yards limped on with the occasional repair work on East India ships and even this was not what it was as ships now were expected to do more voyages than previously.  Where in 1803 to 1804 there had been 2,500 ships being built on the Thames now in 1814 there were just 250. In 1813 there had been 4,000 men employed in the yards, one year later just 200.  The Barnard yard carried on and managed quite well in the circumstances, building four more large East India ships, the 1,360-ton Thames came off the slipway in 1819. 
Frances died, aged eighty-eight, at her house in Mitcham on 17 July 1825 and was interred in the burial ground of the Meeting House, Butt Lane, Deptford. She bequeathed to her son Edward, ‘all pictures, models, draughts of ships, drawings, instruments, moulds, cabinets of woods and such printed books as are anyway related to the art of shipbuilding’. It is worth noting that she had taken all of these with her in her move from the yard to Mitcham. She was a wealthy widow and left shares in East India ships. 
Edward was now in control at last, but times were still difficult. For the committed businessman it was possible to survive such a recession, and ten Thames yards did survive including Barnard’s biggest competitor, Wigrams.  But Edward Barnard was not committed to the business. Still unmarried at the age of forty–seven, his mother’s death seems to have given him a new freedom. With his inheritance, that same year he purchased the grand house and estate at Gosfield Hall for £150,000 and then was married the following year. By 1832 he had entered politics as a Member of Parliament for Greenwich by buying his seat and he left the business to manage itself while he lived the life of a country gentleman.  In 1834 Barnard’s yard was repairing a large East Indiaman, Coutts, but that same year in a court case over non-payment of poor rates, Edward described himself as ‘ a poor broken down shipbuilder.’  The yards were abandoned and on Edward’s death it appeared that he was insolvent, having taken out numerous mortgages including one for £25,000 in 1832 to fund his seat in Parliament.  Frances had been right to hold on to her management of the yards as long as possible.