IT’S ONLY when you start digging into the history of our little bit of the River Thames that you get some idea of just how much has gone on here over the years.
Take my recent request for information about Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) that might have been built around here during the Second World War. I’d not been aware that any such construction was going on in this area but thanks to lots of input from readers, I’m now under absolutely no illusion that it did take place – and in several different locations too, it seems.
The biggest producers were almost certainly the Walton Yacht and Boat Works sited just downstream from Walton Bridge. This company secured contracts from the War Ministry to build a variety of fast launches including MTBs, gunboats and air sea rescue craft.
As I reported last week, Mike Dennett who now runs his own boatyard up at Laleham Reach, served part of his apprenticeship as a young boat builder at the Walton works.
He recalls: “During the war, they must have been employing around 400 men and they were turning out one 80-foot long MTB every two weeks at the height of production.”
When you consider what went into building a boat like that for the Navy, it was an extraordinary feat to turn them out so quickly – but I suppose it just goes to show what can be done when the chips are down.
Mike also recalls that the Navy would not accept any timber in the construction that was less than perfect – so the Walton Works quickly built up an impressive store of ‘rejected’ timber. Even the smallest blemish or knot would rule out a particularly plank from being used.
Which turned out to be a Godsend after the war when the works was taken over by the Odell family who proceeded to build a large number of Thames passenger ships from this rejected stockpile!
I’ve also learned that there were two other yards building MTBs and gunboats on our stretch of the river – one at Chertsey close to the bridge (thanks to Al Thomas for that information) and one at Port Hampton.
I haven’t managed to find out much about the Chertsey site yet (can anyone enlighten me?) But I know the yard at Port Hampton near Hampton Parish Church was owned by the Thorneycrofts, who had previously specialised in upmarket river launches for the well-to-do.
The war obviously signalled a major change of direction for Thorneycroft because they went into building naval vessels in a big way and were eventually merged into Vosper Thorneycroft down in Portsmouth and several other ports.
All that remains of the once-thriving boat building business on Port Hampton is the sad and crumbling shell of one of the covered slipways at the downstream end of the island. Its geodetic-style roof supports were once a classic example of this kind of construction but now most are rotted and broken – a great shame.
SINCE I seem to be on a Second World War bent at the moment, the other thing that has emerged from my research is that they used to build flying boats and fly them off from Chertsey Meads.
Al Thomas thought they were built by Shorts, but my colleague Barry Dix has found a cutting, which suggests that they were actually Supermarine Walrus amphibians of which there were about 150 built. Does anyone remember these somewhat ungainly flying boats buzzing around over Chertsey, Walton or Shepperton during the war years?