I WAS really sad to see this photo of the ruins of the old Thornycroft yard on Platts Eyot going up in flames last week. It truly marked the end of a era in a very sad way as the blaze, which was fought by fire crews from all over the area, put the final nail in the coffin of what was once a thriving local business that built some of the finest fast launches in the world.
John Isaac Thornycroft established his first boat-building business in Chiswick and later went on to set up another factory in Hampshire. But in 1908, he set up a yard on Platts Eyot with the specific intention of building motor launches for private use and fast launches of several types for the Royal Navy.
During the First World War, Thornycroft’s at Hampton were turning our coastal motor boats and, during the second international conflict, the yard was constructing motor torpedo boats, motor launches and landing craft from the slipways on the eastern end of the island.
In the 1960s, the company merged with Vospers – to create Vosper Thornycroft, a company which still builds naval craft today – but that signalled the end of the yard’s activities on Platts Eyot and, in subsequent years, the remnants of Thornycroft’s yard were either taken over by other companies or, like the part destroyed by last week’s blaze, simply allowed to fall into a state of utter disrepair.
The covered slipway that burned was unique in the UK because the curved roof was supported on so-called Belfast trusses, a geodetic structure that offered incredible strength. Although these supports were commonplace in many factories, I believe the slipway at Platts Eyot was the only example of the structure ever being used in a boatyard.
In recent years, there had been mutterings from various groups about restoring the slip to its former glory but, clearly, no one was prepared to put up the considerable sum of money necessary to do the work and those amazing Belfast trusses are now lost for good. A great shame.
Does anyone remember working at Thornycroft’s – I’d love to hear your story if you worked there.
MY old mate Doug Millsom (AKA the Ancient Angler) called me last week to ask whether I could include a piece in Riverwatch inviting folk who remember the old bathing sheds beside the Thames at Walton and opposite Desborough Island to get in touch.
Doug tells me he was one of hundreds of youngsters who used to spend most of their free time in the summer learning to swim or dive at these places.
Apparently they were manned by council staff and Doug recalls:
“The chap at the Desborough site used to teach us kids to swim. He had a lifebelt attached by a rope to a long pole and he used to pull us up an down until we got the hang of swimming on our own.
“There were also a couple of brothers – Smith I think their name was – who used to dive off the bridge connecting the island to the bank,” Doug added.