Friday, January 27 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 Mary Ross who became a Naval Shipbuilder in the early 19th Century.
Mary Ross portrait (A3374) Reproduced by kind permission of Guildhall Museum, Rochester
Acorn Wharf in Rochester is situated close to the bridge across the Medway between Rochester and Strood. Here Charles Ross had his shipbuilding yard. He had been in business since 1791 and had successfully tendered for naval work, from repair to new build.
The contract for Vigo, a 74-gun 3rd rate, was signed in October 1806 and the keel was laid in April 1807. In his letter to the Navy Board in August 1807 Charles offered to build further gun ships and at the same time reassured the board of his reliance as a contractor:
8 Aug 1807
The Board lately having let several gun ships to be built by contract and as the frames of HMS Vigo will be in a very short time be complete humbly beg leave to tender my services to Your Honours to build another at the price and time granted.
I humbly hope from my past and present conduct in expending the work of HM ships in my charge that the Honourable Board will have no doubt in their minds as to my fulfilling the terms of my contract
I pray Your Honours to remember that I was the first person who devised the strong chain and took the 74 gun ships to build at present price and time. 
The naval administrator confirmed his good reputation as a government supplier and noted to the Board ‘that Mr Ross in our opinion is a person whom we can recommend to their Lordships as likely to fulfil his contract to our satisfaction.’ 
Charles died in 1808 leaving Mary his widow and seven children, four sons and three daughters, ranging from Edward, aged sixteen, to the youngest Thomas, aged six. He left no will and Mary took control of the yard. She picked up the reins of the shipbuilding business within months and managed it in a highly capable and confident manner that suggests that she was no stranger to the business. Indeed, living in the yard as she did, it would have been impossible to be completely disassociated from the ships, the men and the business challenges faced by the shipbuilder.
The building of Vigo could not be held up and with an eye to the continuing needs of the business she wrote on 28th November 1808:
Having a considerable quantity of small sized timber laying useless in my possession in consequence of building the two seventy fours I take the liberty of making this application to request that I may be permitted to build one of His Majesty’s small gun boats of class of about 235 tons
Your answer will be esteemed a favour by
Your obedient servant
Mary Ross 
Her letters to the Navy Board are a contrast to those written by her husband or by other contractors. She wrote briskly and to the point, and while they conformed to the written etiquette of the time, were never overly flowery or humble. Her relationship with the Navy was good. In a letter from the Navy Office dated 4 October 1808 she was sent drawings to be used on the Vigo and Stirling Castle. It was signed from ‘your affectionate friends, Burton, Seale and Legge.’
The attitude of the Navy Board towards Mrs Ross was pragmatic. A note relating to Stirling Castle stated that ‘the contract was made with Mr Charles Ross but on his death was transferred to Mrs Mary Ross in whose name the final bill was made out’. 
The launch of the Vigo was delayed at the request of the Board, a difficult situation as this delayed payment and left a slip occupied unnecessarily. This would have an impact on both cashflow and workflow and could cause severe problems for the delicate financial balancing of shipyard finances. The board then, after all, decided the ship should be launched. Good news as this was to Mrs Ross, she could not restrain herself from showing some irritation in her letter to the board and laying out quite clearly the implications of their dithering and underlining her words to emphasis her frustration:
Rochester Jan 25 1810
I received your letter of 22 informing me that it is now your intention that the Vigo shall be launched instead of being kept on the slip until April or May and you desire to know when she will be ready – in answer to which I beg leave to acquaint yr. Hon Board that after you had expressed a wish to have the ship remain on the slip, I fully signalled in my mind that such was your determination and in consequence I had some of the shipwrights & joiners discharged. She would otherwise have been finished and long before this launched but you are now pleased to alter from your first intent I beg to assure you that every exertion shall be used to have her launched as soon as possible which I hope will be the 20 or 21 February 
The Vigo, and final payment, continued to be a concern for Mrs Ross. Further delays led to a request from her on February 4th that the ship be surveyed on the slip and the certificate granted as she had ‘several heavy payments to make about that time’. The board could not agree to that but did promise to ‘endeavour to have her docked & surveyed as she is launched’. This was not to be and Mrs Ross wrote again on 24th February to explain that Chatham could not dock the vessel and asked if the ship could be surveyed afloat. The Board graciously agreed:
27 Febry 1810
Direct Chatham Officer under the particular circumstances of the case and the probability that she will not be taken into dock for some time to survey her afloat & grant a certificate noting thereon the works deficit and how far their objections if any extend to grant the builder the final payment on the ships
Acquaint Mrs Ross with the order given. 
Like other shipbuilders, she kept in regular contact with the board to remind them of her presence and her willingness to build or to repair naval vessels. By 1812 work was slowing down for the merchant contractors and Mary perhaps realised that her tone had not always been as conciliatory as might have been expected. She wrote in November asking for her yard to be considered for contracts and used the phrase ‘I shall feel more obliged than I have the ability to express’. One month later she gave them a direct reminder of her widowed status, perhaps thinking that this might give her some small advantage, although she had by now been a widow for four years; ‘you may be assured that there shall be the greatest attention paid to your concerns and every exertion used to merit the continuance of the support which I have been favoured with since the death of Mr Ross.’
Mary Ross kept the yard going. She succeeded in winning Navy Board tenders in the face of extensive competition and remained completely in charge. A letter to the Navy Board in March 1814 concerning the bomb vessel, Fury, was written by her son Charles ‘on behalf of my mother’. She lived in some style in Acorn House in the yard. The house had been built in the second half of eighteenth century and the ‘furnishings and fittings of the interior in its heyday were said to have been exquisite’.
After launching eight vessels the final vessel to be launched for the navy was the bomb vessel Fury which moved off the slip way in April 1814. Philip Banbury in his book on the Thames and Medway builders incorrectly assumed that at this point Mrs Ross died as no further ships were built.  However, the real problem was that the situation for the shipbuilders on the Thames and Medway had changed considerably for the worse with peace in 1815. There was to be no further shipbuilding in the Ross yard, Mary may have been astute enough to realise that the future of shipbuilding was not looking bright or, judging by their later careers, her sons were not keen to take it over.
Between 1815 and 1821 she assigned some of her estate between her seven children. The family owned several pieces of farming land in Kent and her eldest son, Edward was a farmer, living in Rochester. Her second son, Charles, had been apprenticed as a shipwright in 1808. He did not eventually pursue this career and became a brewer in Stoke Newington. Her other two sons, Stephen and Thomas, were later described as gentlemen, one living in Essex and the other in Ipswich. Mary moved to Stoke Newington and the yard and premises were taken over by her daughter Rebecca and husband, John Foord. Foord was a general builder and contractor and he continued to use the yard for his timber. Mary Ross died a wealthy woman in 1847 leaving her estate equally divided between her surviving children.