British Shipwright History

British Shipwright History


Shipwrights have been the backbone through the centuries of the British Empire and European Shipbuilding history. Sadly, today shipwright trade is a dying trade. Many individuals relate themselves as a boatbuilder and or a shipwright or both after working in a boat yard and or attending a trade school for a short period that only covered a very small part or understanding the full scope of the true shipwright trade, traditions, shipwright guilds in the shipbuilding history.

Generally, a “rule of thumb” is a boatbuilder worked on wooden vessels both private and commercial projects up to approx. 85’ with a limited knowledge and a working understanding of related trades involved during new construction or repair and refit projects.

A shipwright journeyman works on private and commercial projects more than 85’ with no limit to length or project complexity, general working knowledge and practical experience with wood, steel and aluminum materials and various fabrication disciplines and production procedures.

The shipwright apprenticeship / indenture program even today is usually a four (4) to five (5) years depending on the country and covers all various aspects of yacht and shipbuilding, the disciplines with practical and technical knowledge of design, various fabrication procedures interfacing with systems, mechanical, electrical, wood working, interior and exterior outfitting pre-launch, launch including dock and sea trails to deliver, a general knowledge of planning and scheduling of all the trade disciplines required for the successful completion of the new construction or repair & refit project.

On successful completion of their shipwright apprenticeship program had various opportunities in the yacht and shipbuilding industry. Tradesman journeyman in new construction or repair & refit projects - sea going ships carpenter - shipyard management.


The Shipwright apprenticeship in the 1600s - 1700s was by no means an easy trade to gain an apprenticeship in a shipyard or dockyard and was generally only by family connections.

In 1608 King of England decreed that no shipwright should have more than one apprentice paid by the King, this privilege of having an apprentice was extended to about one sixth of the shipwrights. In 1664 the Royal Navy Board decreed that every apprentice to be 16 years of age at the time of starting his seven-year shipwright indenture. In 1765 the age was lowered to 15 years of age and in 1769 to 14 years.

The indentured Shipwright apprentice earnings were paid to his master until he was 23. In 1801 the shipwright apprentices’ wages were changed two thirds of his wage went to his master, and one third to the apprentice’s parents or guardian.

Apprentices generally had no general education when indentured. The Royal Navy Board “suggested” that upon entry apprentices should be able to read and write and understand the common rules of Arithmetic. Dockyard schools were instituted in 1843.Teaching classes were held during working hours and also taught technical subjects of shipbuilding.


Employees entered and left the dockyard at the ringing of a bell at the Clerk of the Cheques’s office. During the day there were usually four “calls” for a head count.
Between 1722 and 1804 The Shipyard and dockyard shipwrights typical work schedule.
Summer (March to October) 12-hour days from 6am to 6pm.
Summer ½ hour was allowed for breakfast and 1½ hours for dinner.
Winter, work was from daylight to dusk.
Winter there was no time for breakfast and only 1 hour for dinner.

The exceptionally long working hours ensured a daily life totally centered around the workplace. Families freely entered the shipyard, shipwright and dockyard workers would share each meal with his wife and children at his workplace. Around 1750 the wage rate for a shipwright near London was 3/- (36 cents) per day and in 1770 3s-6d (42 cents) per day (£39 per year).
Old shipwrights were permitted to keep their jobs long after they were fit to work, many were allowed servants. They were often given light tasks such as sorting wedges, and mooting treenails etc. When they died, their servants stayed on, to provide an income for the shipwright’s widows.

In 1764 the first scheme of superannuation (pension system) was instituted for those who had served 30 years or more with the possibility of retiring on 2/3 of basic pay.
Shipwrights worked together in “gangs “on the ships moored in the river or in the yard itself. Working gangs were led by quarter men. Quarter men were allowed to choose their gang from among the available shipwrights. Normally there was 1 Quarterman for 20 shipwrights.

The “shipwright task system “was introduced in the 1770’s, a shipwright gang was employed by task and paid when the task was completed – “piecework in modern terms”- The earlier practice had been to pay by the day.
In 1775 the shipwrights at Sheerness Shipyard were grouped as follows; -
Four Task Gangs – 5 quarter men, 56 shipwrights and 20 servants
Two Day Gangs – 2 quarter men, 24 shipwrights and 18 servants

Shipwright Journeyman:

A shipwright journeyman worked in shipyards and docks, their tools were similar to carpenters in general, much heavier for working in oak and large timbers. Other tools were adzes, heavy axes and hatchets for hewing, hacksaws, and cold chisels to cut bolts. Iron nails of all sorts were available.

Shipwright Journeyman Sea Going:

Shipwrights in listed in the Royal Navy and commercial shipping were called “Carpenters Mates “until 1918. Few rose above the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Entry level was “Shipwright 4th Class “,3rd, 2nd, and 1st Class Shipwright “and eventually “Chief Petty Officer Shipwright “.


Ships Caulkers:

Caulkers worked alongside of shipwrights. The caulkers filled the seams between the planking with oakum, picked loose by his assistant the “oakum boy” to calk the seams of carvel-built ships watertight. The “oakum boy “brought the pitch in liquid form from a boiler, supplying several caulkers who pitched the seams at the end of the work shift.

Ship Sawyers:

The ships sawyers cut straight tree trunks up into planks and timber working in pairs with the tree trunk lying above them in a saw pit. This work required a certain amount of skill in ensuring that the cut was straight and ran parallel.


Livery Description:

The term livery originated in the specific dress to denote status of belonging to a trade. Livery companies evolved from London's medieval guilds, becoming corporations under Royal Charter responsible for training in their respective trades, regulation of aspects such as wage control, labour conditions and industry standards. Early guilds where parish fraternal organizations, where large groups of members of the same trade lived in close proximity and gathered at the same church.

Livery Companies Training and Industry:

The Livery companies were originally formed in the 12th century, to guarantee that a member was trustworthy and fully qualified, and that the goods they produced were of reputable quality, the two-fold aim being to protect the public and to protect members from charlatans.

Livery Charity and Education:

From the start, the companies cared for their members in sickness and old age. Today, they support both their members, and wider charitable aims and activities, including those supporting education and training.

Livery Membership:

From Queen Victoria's reign the livery continues to enjoy a special connection with the Royal Family, several of whom are liverymen today; Prince Charles was installed on 10 May 2011 as Prime Warden and served for 2011–2012 before succeeding his father, The Duke of Edinburgh, as Permanent Master Shipwright on 16 February 2012.