History of Vosper Thornycroft
This well established Company, known for the high quality of their products, was formed in 1966 with the joining of two very different shipbuilding companies, Vosper Ltd of Portsmouth, famous for high speed craft and motor torpedo boats, and JI Thornycroft of Southampton, mainly noted for Destroyer building. The merged Company survived the trauma of being nationalised by the Labour Government in the mid 1970’s when it became a division of British Shipbuilders, and returned to the commercial sector with a management buyout in late 1985. The Company has never looked back since privatisation and has continued to flourish during the lean periods of warship building, mainly through intensive and successful sales efforts for export and diversification outside of its core shipbuilding business into the training and support areas.
Herbert Edward Vosper set up his Company, Vosper & Co when he was only 21 in 1871 at Camber, a small commercial dock on the east side of the entrance to Portsmouth harbour. The main work of the Company during the early years was largely in the refitting and repair of coastal vessels. The soon prosperous company began producing their own range of steam reciprocating engines which were fitted into all types of craft, including yachts, tugs, tenders and launches, for the Admiralty and for export. One of the first vessels that the Company built was the tug Hercules for the Shoreham Harbour Authority. Vosper & Co. proved to be an early pioneer of the internal combustion engine, developing vaporising paraffin and crude oil engines.
In the early days, the Company was not known as a builder of high speed craft, but mainly for the reliability and strength of their products. It had a wide range of skills and capacities, being able to design, develop and build its own hulls in steel and in wood, engines, boilers and associated machinery, in fact the whole ship. Well into the 20th Century, they were still listed as Engineers and Boiler makers. The Great War saw a rapid expansion of the company’s activities, but with the cessation of hostilities in late 1918 Vosper existed mainly on refit work. A major contract at that time was the virtual rebuild of Captain Scott’s Discovery for a further Antarctic expedition. Herbert Vosper retired in 1919, and died in 1934.
Vosper & Co’s fortunes changed when Commander Du Cane became managing director in 1931.The Company then concentrated on high speed craft, including yachts, tenders and racing boats. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird II was built by the company and took the world water speed record at 141.7mph in August 1939. In 1936, Vosper & Co. became a public company and changed its name to Vosper Ltd, and a second yard was purchased at Flathouse on the north side of Portsmouth Dockyard. This yard was later compulsorily purchased by the Admiralty and a new site established at Porchester which is still in use today. Commander Du Cane built as a private venture a 68ft motor torpedo boat, which achieved 48 knots on trials. The Admiralty then purchased this boat and commissioned it as MTB102. The boat still survives today in working order preserved in the Norwich area. MTB102 was the prototype for a further 350 boats built at home and abroad by Vosper’s during WWII and gained the Company a deserved reputation as a provider of well built and reliable fast attack craft. In 1939 came a novel order from the Admiralty to build and deliver a new barge for the Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert. In 1938 Vosper began to develop a new generation of motor torpedo boats, which laid the foundations for the company’s later concentration on small high speed warships, mainly using the un-stepped planning hull design. To power these boats, Vosper obtained a licence to manufacture the Italian Isotta Franschini engine, later developed to produce nearly 1500hp. When the supply of these engines became difficult due to the war, Packard engines were fitted. At the end of the war, Vosper had amassed a great deal of expertise and experience relating to all aspects of high speed craft, the only problem was how to apply this experience to a deflated post war market.
The 73ft MTB1601 was built in 1948, and incorporated a number of novel Vosper ideas including a modified hull form with a higher chine and deeper V section hull, and controllable pitch propellers with direct drive. The vessel originally had no gearboxes, but was later refitted with fixed pitch propellers and reversing gearboxes on which she achieved 43knots on trials. This hull design became the basis for later Vosper designs including the Brave Class fast patrol boats. Vosper’s were then selected to pioneer the installation of marine gas turbines with the fitting of a Rolls Royce RM60 into the former steam gunboat HMS Grey Goose. This installation was swiftly followed by the building of the two Bold Class vessels fitted with Metro-Vickers G2 gas turbines. Despite this work, there was not the volume or profit to sustain the company, and there is no doubt that without the intervention of the Korean War which led to an emergency construction programme of fast patrol boats, Vosper Ltd as a company would probably have ceased trading.
The 1950’s saw the building of the Brave Class powered by the Bristol Siddeley Proteus gas turbine using super cavitating propellers developed in the Vosper’s cavitation tunnel at Porchester. Later developments of this design led to speeds of up to 58knots being achievable. In 1958, the controlling shares in Vosper Ltd were purchased by the Mineral Separation Company which provided the financial support needed to sustain the Company into the 1960’s, during which time a number of larger twin and triple screw fast patrols boats were built for the German, Danish, Malaysian, Brunei and Libyan Navies. The Company also designed and built even larger corvettes and fast patrol boats for Ghana, Peru, and Singapore, four or which came from the Singapore shipyard. This was a profitable time for the company, and in 1963 the controlling interest was purchased by the David Brown Corporation. In 1965, the Vosper design team in collaboration with Vickers, completed the design of its first frigate known as the MK 5. This ship would displace 1300tons and be capable of 40 knots, however the ship could not be built at any of the current Vosper facilities, but in the event the strong financial position of the Company allowed a merger with JI Thornycroft of Southampton. This merger provided the larger building capacity required for Vosper’s to expand.
JI Thornycroft built his first vessel at Chiswick on the River Thames in the late 1800’s, and was a pioneer in the production of high speed vessels. Thornycroft specialised in the development of fast steam powered torpedo boats and destroyers achieving speeds that were previously considered unobtainable by many leading architects. The main
JI Thornycroft shipyard was established on the side of the River Itchen at Woolston Southampton and has continued to serve the company well until the new modular shipbuilding facility in Portsmouth Dockyard was constructed in 2003. The Woolston shipyard was always one of Southampton’s major employers, and delivered its first ship to the Royal Navy, HMS Tartar in 1906. The yard had several slips, but the width of the River Itchen limited the length of the ship built to that of a large destroyer. In the period up to the start of the Great War, Thornycroft’s built 37 destroyers for the RN alone, and several more for export.
There has always been a saying in the Royal Navy that if you were serving on a Thornycroft built ship then you were serving on a well built and sound vessel. Many a famous ship has been built at Woolston, and they proved to be well able to take serious damage and still survive to fight another day. During the First World War, Thornycroft built 26 destroyers, 3 submarines, and a huge number of coastal motor boats and fast launches all powered by petrol engines and able to carry torpedoes.
After the Great War, despite the dramatic rundown in the size of the Royal Navy, the company survived and continued to build destroyer sized warships both for the Admiralty and for export, and benefited from the large shipbuilding programmes of the late 1930’s as Britain once again geared up for war. The Woolston shipyard was bombed and damaged several times during the Blitz, probably because the Supermarine Spitfire factory was the next industrial facility upriver and Southampton was a major port. Certainly, the air raids became less frequent when the Spitfire factory was burnt out and aircraft production transferred to outlying sites. Thornycroft built a huge and diverse number of ships during the war from minelayers, destroyers and corvettes, to landing craft and RAF rescue launches. The company also designed and built the improved Hunt Class destroyers Bissenden and Brecon which corrected the stability problems experienced by the original design.
Once again with the run down of the Royal Navy after 1945, Thornycroft reverted to what can only be called lean production, with work being confined to building tugs, ferries, launches and barges, with the occasional naval order to be completed. The company launched the Weapons Class destroyer Crossbow in 1946, and the Daring Class destroyer Duchess in 1951. The Korean War provided a respite, with the building of 10 Ton class wooden minesweepers and three frigates. The Type 12 frigate HMNZS Otago was delivered in 1960, by which time naval orders were once again scarce. One of the problems which Thornycroft experienced at this time was the lack of weapons expertise within the company, all weapons dealings were with Vickers, who were also competing in the same market for falling orders, and who naturally would promote their own shipbuilding division. The Tribal Class general purpose frigate Gurkha was delivered to the RN in 1963 and the Leander Class frigate Juno laid down in 1964. The minelayer HMS Abdiel followed in 1965 along with 2 78ft patrol boats for Kuwait. These were lean times for the company, but the Board wisely invested in the future of the company by continually improving the Woolston facility with the extension on the quays and other facilities, and closed the loss making yard on the Thames.
The company also instigated what was to be a far sighted study into the feasibility of producing a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) hull. Although the company had a huge range of capabilities and engineering skills, its profit margins were low, and it was open to a hostile take over, so the approach from Vosper to merge the two companies’ gave them both a lifeline and outlets to succeed. In early 1966 they joined forces, but both companies’s continued to trade under their original names until June 1970 when the title Vosper Thornycroft (VT) was adopted. The new expanded company became very vigorous in the export market, with salesmen travelling the world to secure shipbuilding contracts for the company. Orders were realised for a corvette and a support ship for Libya, three fast patrol craft for Kenya, and a large order of 18 patrol craft for Malaysia.
VT were also very successful in selling warships to the Shah of Iran, beginning with the refitting and updating on the ex RN Battle Class destroyer HMS Sluys to be renamed Artemiz. This work was followed by the order of 4 Mark 5 frigates, two of which were built by Vickers to share the financial and construction risk. These innovative heavily armed steel ships employed a CODAG propulsion system with RR Olympus gas turbines capable of driving the vessels at 40 knots using super cavitating propellers.
This order was followed early in 1968 with a slightly larger Mk 7 Frigate for Libya. In 1967, a design for the replacement of the successful Leander Class was urgently required, but resource problems within the MoD meant that the ship could not be designed in-house, so VT in partnership with Yarrows on the Clyde submitted a proposal for a 3000ton Frigate that was to become the Type 21. The joint bid was successful, and the Woolston shipyard built the first of class HMS Amazon. The hull was built of steel and the superstructure of aluminium; this was later to cause controversy when Antelope and Ardent were lost in the Falklands war. HMS Amazon had the distinction of being the first class of ship to go to sea with the now ubiquitous RR Tyne and Olympus machinery combination. This was an innovative power plant at the time, and had in fact been scheduled to first go the sea in the Type 42 Destroyer HMS Sheffield, but the Vickers ship was late in delivery. A further two Type 21’s were built at Woolston, Antelope and Active, with the remaining 5 built at Yarrows. In early 1970, the Brazilian Navy issued a requirement for up to six new Frigates, and the VT design, the Mk 10 was based on an enlarged Type 21. The bid was accepted and the contract signed in September 1970. Four would be built at Woolston and two in Brazil with assistance and technology transfer from VT. A new covered shipbuilding facility was built at Woolston to help complete this prestigious order.
The Porchester yard was also busy at this time, delivering two 110ft steel patrol boats to Singapore, with another two of the class being built at the Company’s Singapore yard. The Royal Navy received the fast training boats HMS Scimitar, Cutlass and Sabre, and Nigeria had two Mk 3 Frigates. Also in 1970, two 103ft patrol boats were built for Panama and two more went to Trinidad.
In 1974, the newly elected Labour government introduced a bill to nationalise the shipbuilding industry. After a long hard fought battle against the bill, mainly from the warship builders, the Company was nationalised on 1July 1977, and became a division of British Shipbuilders. Aside from the bureaucratic interference, many people felt the VT in the prosperous south would be sacrificed for those shipbuilding concerns in the north of the country. Luckily this fear proved unfounded. VT did however secure an early export order from Egypt for six 52m Ramadan class patrol boats. The Woolston yard received orders for three Type 42 Destroyers, HMS Southampton, Nottingham and Gloucester, the later proving to be the last large steel ship to built at Woolston until the Trimaran Triton was launched in 2000. In 1982, the production of the Hunt Class GRP Minehunters was in full swing, with eleven of the class of thirteen constructed by VT. The Woolston shipyard was heavily tasked during the Falklands crisis in the conversion of the Liners Canberra and QE2 into troopships. This work mainly involved the fitting of helicopter decks and refuelling at sea equipment, and required working in substantial reinforcing steelwork to support the heavy helicopter decks high up on the liners aluminium superstructures. This work was accomplished in record time, reflecting the pride, experience and expertise available in the Company. Vosper Thornycroft were also asked by the MoD to undertake a study into what form the next generation of Minehunter should take. This ship eventually materialised into the Single Role Minehunter (SRMH) Sandown Class. VT also secured some welcome steel ship work at this time with the refit of three ex RN Tribal Class frigates for Indonesia.
The first SRMH, HMS Sandown was handed over in 1989, and in addition to the other RN ships, VT also built three more for Saudi Arabia under the enormous BAE Systems Al Yamamah contract. At least the GRP facility was busy, but major steel ship work still eluded the Company despite extensive sales efforts. By 1992 work was again scarce, and a further 350 redundancies were declared. Later that year however the sales team had success with the sale of two 83m corvettes for the Government of Oman. This was immediately followed by an order for four 56m strike craft for the State of Qatar, and in 1994, the RN ordered a second batch of seven SRMH. After several years of promoting innovative warship designs, including the revolutionary Sea Wraith stealth ship, VT were awarded a contract to build the Trimaran demonstrator RV Triton. This advanced ship was launched in May 2000. Modular construction techniques enabled Triton to be launched almost 97% complete. In late 1999, VT secured a major export order against strong opposition to design and support the construction of a number of 62m Super Vita fast attack craft for Greece at the Elefis Shipyard near Athens for the Hellenic Navy. As part of this innovative contract, VT transferred shipbuilding technology and supplied two ex Royal Navy Hunt Class Minehunters
In Early 2000, the Company was selected as prime contractor for a £100m order to supply two new survey vessels for the Royal Navy, to be named Enterprise and Echo. Capacity issues at the Woolston yard led to build of these two ships being sub-contracted to the Appeldore Shipyard in Devon. In a completely innovative move, VT formulated an unsolicited bid to the UK Government to replace the five Island Class OPV’s with three new leased River Class vessels that would be guaranteed available to the RN for up to 300 days per year. The package includes whole life support, and the option for the RN to purchase the vessels at the end of the 5 year lease or return the vessels to VT. The last of these three ships, HMS Mersey launched on 25 June 2003, turned out to be the final steel ship to be constructed at Woolston. The prospect of major large steel ship work retuned to the Company when it was announced in July 2000 that VT was to share in the construction programme of the new Type 45 Destroyers for the RN. After careful consideration of the continued viability of the Woolston shipyard, it was decided to move the shipbuilding facility from Woolston to a new purpose built shipyard in Portsmouth Dockyard the land for which was secured on a 125 year lease. This yard is one of the most modern shipbuilding facilities in the world, and the first steel was cut for HMS Daring in late October 2003. The construction of this new shipbuilding facility proved to be doubly important, as in early 2003, the Government announced that VT will share in building mega-blocks for the two new Aircraft Carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. These substantial contracts will ensure that warship building will continue on the south coast until at least the year 2020.
Vosper Thornycroft sells out to BAE Systems to end 150 years of shipbuilding
David Robertson Jan 29th 2009
It was “an emotional decision”, but, after 150 years, the former Vosper Thornycroft said yesterday that it would never build another ship.
VT said that it was selling out to BAE Systems, Europe’s largest defence company, and was ending its illustrious history in the shipbuilding industry.
The two groups merged their dockyards last year in a deal that created the last big shipbuilder in Britain. Now VT is to exercise an option to sell its share of the joint venture to BAE for £380 million.
John Thornycroft founded his dockyard at Chiswick on the River Thames in 1860. Twelve years later, Herbert Vosper founded a yard in Portsmouth. The Thornycroft yard built HMS Lightning, the world’s first torpedo ship. Launched in 1876, it was the first ship to be armed with self-propelled torpedoes.
The Vosper yard also has claims to fame. It built and repaired smaller craft, including the Bluebird K4 in which Sir Malcolm Campbell broke the water speed record in 1939. He reached a speed of 141.74mph.
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Vosper Thornycroft, as the company was called after the two merged in 1966, was nationalised in the 1970s and became part of British Shipbuilding. It was bought out by its management in 1985 for £19 million and floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1988. It has a market capitalisation of £1 billion after developing its services business in the Nineties, when ship orders began to collapse.
VT provides such services as managing police vehicles and offering careers advice in schools, but about 70 per cent of its business remains in the defence sector, in areas such as base management and training.
Paul Lester, its chief executive, said: “Without shipbuilding we could not have got where we are today, but it is time to move on. It is an emotional decision, but it is the best one for our employees and the company.” The deal should be completed in July.
BVT, as the shipbuilder is now called, includes VT’s dockyard in Portsmouth as well as BAE’s yards at Scotstoun and Govan on the Clyde. The company has gone out in a blaze of glory : HMS Daring, the Type 45 destroyer built by the combined group, completed its maiden voyage yesterday.