James Hillhouse (Bristol Branch)



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 years.

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 continued working.

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 sad day.