Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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William Laird and Son

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of Birkenhead

1824 William Laird, with business partners William Hamilton and John Forsyth, bought land on the south bank of Wallasey Pool, an inlet of the River Mersey opposite Liverpool, adjoining the small but developing village of Birkenhead. Initially he intended to build a canal across the Wirral peninsula but that plan soon foundered. Instead, Laird set up the Birkenhead Iron Works to manufacture boilers with another partner, Daniel Horton.

1828 The partnership was dissolved. Laird and his son with his son John, a solicitor's clerk, set up a new business,William Laird and Son. This was initially a boilerworks.

1828 John realised that the techniques of making boilers could be applied to making ships. In 1828 the firm received its first order for an iron ship, to be used on the lakes of Ireland. The business rapidly expanded, as the demand for large iron steamships developed.

1829 Built a lighter (ship) made of iron 60ft long, 13ft 4 ins beam and 6 ft deep. [1]. This 60-ton lighter, the Wye, was for use on inland waterways in Ireland.

1832 Another son, Macgregor Laird, was establishing his own yard on the Liverpool bank from 1832. Macgregor Laird was also known as a human rights activist for African peoples, and undertook several voyages into the interior of Africa.

1833 Built a paddle-steamer, the Lady Lansdowne. Like the Wye it was built in sections for reassembly in Ireland.

1834 An early innovation was the use of bulkheads in the small paddle steamer Garryowen. In addition, the yard made a number of iron gunboats.

1834 Built another prefabricated vessel, the John Randolph, for G. B. Lamar of Savannah, the first iron ship to be built for an American owner.

1835 Prefabricated riverboats became a speciality - the Tigris and Euphrates, with which F. R. Chesney explored the Euphrates.

1837 The Rainbow was the 10th ship built by Mr Laird on the patented principles intended to ensure safety[2]; the Rainbow was the largest iron ship of its day.

Also constructed the Robert F. Stockton, a screw-steamer; and the Nemesis, a gunboat used in the opium wars with China; the Dover for the Admiralty in 1839.

1838-42 See 1839-1842 Marine Engine Makers for details of engines made for the Admiralty

1839 Built an armed flotilla for the East India Company.

1841 Death of William Laird

1850 The Admiralty were uncertain about the ability of iron to protect warships and conducted several tests, eventually concluding that the Nemesis had been successful because it operated in warm waters whereas iron was too brittle if used in the cold waters around the British Isles[3]

1850s The site of the yard was acquired by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for Birkenhead Docks. John Laird's moved to a new site between Monks Ferry and Tranmere Pool. This was known as the North Yard. The famous explorer Dr. Livingstone ordered his river steamer Ma Robert from the yard.

1855 New Iron Mortar Boats launched (John Laird)

1850s The Admiralty's refusal to believe in iron ships nearly broke the yard[4]

1860 On 1st January John Laird took his sons William and John into the firms, and the title was changed to John Laird, Sons and Co.

1861 John Laird retired in order to become an MP.

1862 Became Laird Brothers with William, John and Henry as owners and managers. From this point onwards the yard built up a formidable reputation as a merchant shipbuilder.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Fielden’s Magazine Vol 4
  2. Liverpool Mercury, October 20, 1837
  3. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy, by J. R. Hill, Bryan Ranft
  4. The Times, May 05, 1970