James Hillhouse (Bristol
THE END OF A GREAT ERA
When the last ship to be built by
Charles Hill's finally slid down the slipway of the old Albion
dockyard 30 years ago this month, it signalled not only the end
of the firm's historic links with the old docks, but also with
centuries of maritime history.
The story of Charles Hill and Sons,
and its forerunner, Hillhouse, is also a tale of the harbour
and a mirror to the city's trading fortunes over the past 250
James Hillhouse, the company's founder,
arrived in Bristol in the days when the city's merchants were
building up their wealth on the back of the lucrative West Indian
slave trade. When he died in 1754 he left his son a small fortune.
The younger Hillhouse, also called James, further increased the
family wealth during the seven-years war with France by "privateering"
- a kind of licenced piracy. In this controversial, but strictly
legal, affair, armed merchantmen would prey on enemy ships in
the hope of carrying off both vessel and cargo.
By the time his eldest son, yet another
James, was born in 1748, the family had accumulated enough wealth
to turn to honest trade and started a shipbuilding business in
a drydock at Hotwells. Lucky enough to obtain Admiralty contracts
for the construction of vessels to fight in the American colonial
wars, he was able to expand his shipyards across the river. These
large vessels - 1,000 tons plus with around 50 guns - helped
establish Hilhouse's reputation and, turning to the construction
of merchantmen, they built many ships for the West Indies run.
In 1810, Charles Hill, who was no
relation, joined the firm - now doing very well and working three
yards - as an accountant. After the company had built a small
pioneer steamboat for use in the docks and two large wooden paddle
boats (packets) for the run to Cork, Charles was, within a few
years, running the dockyard department. And, by 1825, when Hill
became a partner, the business was not only building ships but
also trading on the lucrative West Indies run.
A few years later came South African
trade and later China and India. The name of the business was
changed to Hillhouse and Hill. This growing interest in trade
seems to have caused the shipbuilding side of the business to
slip somewhat and a serious competitor arose in the shape of
William Patterson. Having launched Brunel's ps Great Western
to worldwide acclaim in 1837, Patterson's yard was soon snatching
all the orders. They were building everything from racing yachts
to large sailing ships and steamers.
In 1845, Charles called his 16-year-old
son into the business and, taking sole control, named the firm
Charles Hill and Son. Within 10 years, Hill had built up a fleet
of old North American-built sailing ships, trading under the
Blue Star flag, for the West Indies trade. But shipbuilding was
not neglected and the firm continued making medium-sized, 300
to 400-ton vessels, as well as gunboats for the Admiralty, their
first work for them for nearly 50 years. Hill's yard was also
making a good profit from repairing badly-damaged ships and then
buying them up.
By 1856, changes in world trade dictated
different policies and Hill's sold off all their small West Indies
boats and invested in just two very large ships to carry both
cargo and passengers to the newly-opened lands of India and Australia.
A decade later, Charles Hill died but the ship-owning business
continued. By 1872, his son owned 18 vessels and a few years
later went on to found the well known Bristol City Line, carrying
cargoes across the Atlantic to New York.
Although many believed it would never
happen, the 1880s signalled the beginning of the end for the
romantic sailing ship. Hill's yard was now building the first
proper iron ships and in 1895 launched the Favell , the very
last big sailing vessel to be built in Bristol. She was finally
broken up in 1937. Two years later the company sold its own sailing
ship, and in 1900, the year Charles Hill (the second) died, the
firm had 10 modern steamships - including the Bristol City, the
largest ship ever constructed in Bristol at the time - on the
New York run.
There followed a depressed period
leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, but once hostilities
started Hill's were turning out more ships than ever before.
Over the next 10 years the yard produced a score of ships to
replace those which had been lost - small steam ships, pontoons,
barges, tugs and more vessels for the Admiralty. During the Second
World War, Hill's Albion yard was blitzed three times but miraculously
At least two dozen ships were built
and 2,000 repaired and refitted. Queen Mary - who was staying
at Badminton for the duration of the war - paid a morale-boosting
visit in 1944. It was during the war years that Hill's decided
to adopt their "Shipshape and Bristol fashion" motto,
although the saying had, of course, existed for many centuries.
After 1945 commercial trading and building resumed as normal.
Launches included the Campbell paddleboat, Bristol Queen, four
boats for the Bristol Steam Navigation Company, the the sand
dredger Harry Brown , a lightship and a Scilly Isles ferry boat.
By the 1950s, when Hill's finally became a public company, the
firm was at its most diverse and involved in shipowning, shipbuilding,
shipreparing and stevedoring.
The Bristol City Line had a busy
Canadian trade and the shipyard was constructing small commercial
vessels of all kinds. But, just over a decade later, as shipping
in the old city docks (the Floating Harbour) continued to decline,
controversial plans were mooted to fill in a section of the waterway
and to build highways over and around the area of the yard. This,
of course, never happened but once the city council had made
a decision to close the harbour to commercial shipping the writing
was on the wall - Charles Hill had to go. In 1977, after much
controversy, the old Albion Dockyard was sold to the city and
Charles Hill's historic ship yard finally broken up. It was a