Royal Navy. 

Robert Whitehead - 
A Brief History.

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JX 113661 Chief Petty Officer T.G.M. Campbell - 1940's


This material below is copyrighted.  I would like to thank Phil Russell for allowing me to use some of the information from his web site and also to and Doug Hollings for the photographs he kindly sent.

3rd January 1823 was the day Robert Whitehead was born in Bolton, England. He went to the local grammar school and became an (apprentice) engineer and joined Manchester's Mechanic's Institute. After a spell working in France (1844) he started his own company. He married in 1846 - lived in Marseilles, France, and then moved to Milan producing textile and silk weaving machinery.Robert Whitehead.

Whitehead (pictured on the right), then moved his family from Milan (due mainly to unrest in the City), to Trieste. News of his work in developing marine steam engines spread, the young man joined a company at Fiume which designed and built warships - the company was Stabilimeno Technico Fiumano.

The move was to change his life, especially when his help and expertise was requested in perfecting the "coastsaver" apparatus - a steel floating object filled with explosive - invented by a retired Captain Giovanni Luppis of the Austrian Navy.

Around 1850, Whitehead had been approached by the Austrian Government to produce a new weapon, (by this time Whitehead had many locomotives and marine steam engine engineering factories throughout Europe. There were a great deal of British entrepreneurs around the world at this time), for it's Navy. Some had looked at developing methods of destroying ships from a safer distance that at present.

Around 1866, after many tests, and help from his twelve year old son, John, a floating torpedo had been developed which could hit a target at about 700 yards and a speed of approximately seven knots, after being fired underwater by compressed air. To keep the torpedo at a required depth, Whitehead developed perhaps the most crucial piece of engineering that became the basis for his success - it was a hydrostatic plate to drive the depth rudder, by a spring connected to a pendulum.  This was a 'first' in torpedo design as one one else had this device. (For other torpedo designs at the time - click here.)

 In 1868, the Austrian Navy saw the Whitehead-Luppis torpedo in action and placed an order. Whitehead retained the copyrights and even negotiated a new contract with Luppis which gave Whitehead full control of all future sales.

The Royal Navy (Great Britain) soon heard of Whitehead's success and asked for a demonstration of the 14 inch and 16 inch torpedoes. This resulted in the Royal Navy buying the rights to produce their own torpedoes, but not without a large number of mishaps. The Royal Navy built a torpedo-boat catcher but this was not successful either.

The Whitehead family bloomed and became very wealthy after the sale of the Fiume torpedo and his children married into some of the most influential families in Europe. Robert Whitehead's daughter, Alice, married Count George Hoyos in 1869, who purchased the Fiume factory and renamed it Silurifico Whitehead, with John Whitehead, (the eldest son), becoming a director.  

Having Count Hoyos as a son-in-law was a considerable bonus, as he was a member of an old Hapsburg aristocratic family with considerable contacts and influence.  The international family links were increased in 1892 when Robert Whitehead's grand daughter, Marguerite Hoyos, married the son of the German Chancellor, Herbert Von Bismark.   In 1912, Robert Whitehead's  great grand-daughter, Frances, met and married a submarine commander - Captain Von Trapp (of The Sound Of Music fame).

Click to enlarge. An 18 inch torpedo (shown right), was demonstrated to the Royal Navy by Captain Edwin Payne Gallway - considered to be the 2nd best only to  Whitehead himself - proved such a success that the Navy promptly ordered vast numbers of them. The Admiralty Board wanted these torpedoes built in Britain or they would cancel all orders. Whitehead decided to build his factory at Portland Harbour (as this was where torpedo trials were held), at Ferrybridge, near Weymouth.

Part of Portland Harbour. Over the years Portland Harbour grew in size, as did the improvements to the torpedoes. Then in 1895, Whitehead developed a gyroscope which allowed further accuracy and an error of less than half a degree. With this breakthrough came other factors - many more skilled engineering staff were required - mainly further afield, so accommodation was needed and new houses were built. Also, a second new breakwater was built around the Harbour to protect the ships.

The Famous "Whitehead Walk." As the harbour site grew over the years, the site saw the first railway line laid (1857), many more houses, shops, hospital, schools, churches and pubs. A firing range was established in 1898. Even royalty came, Kind Edward VII visited the works on the 4th April 1902, (and later His Royal Highness - The Duke of York, on 4th July 1930 - later to become King George VI). The area grew so much a "Whitehead Walk" was organised (25th July 1903 - see picture on right) starting from Wyke Hotel, walking via Weymouth, Dorchester and back to Kings Statue. The prize of 33.0.0. was donated by the Whitehead company. After this, many competitions started.

Robert Whitehead retired, nearly 80 years old, leaving an established Ferrybridge Works. His eldest son - John - took control in the late 1890's. John died suddenly in 1902, so Count George Hoyos took control until he died in 1904 quite sudden. Captain Payne Gallway took over and was helped by a Scot - an engineer by the name of A. E. Jones, nicknamed "Fiume" because of his time spent at the place.

During the next two years, the company grew, with orders from America for torpedoes (1905), and, perhaps the saddest day - 14th November 1905, Robert Whitehead died aged 82, having received many high awards from nine appreciative countries - BUT NONE FROM GREAT BRITAIN - HIS NATIVE COUNTRY. In 1906, captain Gallway died suddenly, this meant all the original team had now died.

In 1906, Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth and Co acquired sufficient shares (the rest of the shares were with the Whitehead family) to take control. (It is reported that the British Admiralty were worried who would 'take over' the company, for instance a foreign power.) Once the company was 'secure', the new owners increased and improved performance. New torpedoes were designed - larger and faster. Whitehead branches opened abroad, mainly to help guarantee a reliable supply to other foreign Governments, even in hostilities that may occur.

As to be expected, at the outbreak of World War One in 1914, the British Admiralty took complete control of the works, with production "round the clock", 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Ironically, once the war ended in 1918, Vickers-Armstrong were handed back control. Then the orders coming in started to slow down, it was such a dramatic turn of misfortune that in 1921, the Whitehead Company went into liquidation, sacked it's workforce and closed the gates. By late 1923 however, it was a newly formed company - "The Whitehead Torpedo Company Limited" brought the majority of the Wykes Regis site for a reported sum of 17,700.

Many of the "old workforce" returned, but also, and most importantly, young blood came in - younger men came to start their careers in numerous areas of employment. Slowly the new owners started to impress on the world "They were back in business!" A new concept of torpedo was designed, one dropped from a plane, called the Whitehead Aeroplane Torpedo, around 1939. At over 16 feet long and 18 inches in diameter, they could be dropped at a height of 140 feet at a speed of 105 m.p.h.          (Similar to the one in the picture shown on the left.)

As British history shows, during the 1930's was a time of the big depression, and the new Whitehead Company, along with the whole of the Country felt the effects, Whitehead workers went on a three day week, but apprentices were still on full time. A normal working week was 44 hours, by 1933, short time meant only two days per fortnight - making it therefore very hard for the families to survive.

Despite the depression, research and design still went on and in 1934, a new (Distant Range) firing range was built, mainly for the new 18 inch and 21 inch torpedoes. Tubes were lowered into the water to simulate a submarine firing a torpedo, (similar to those pictured on the right), with small boats on stand by to retrieve the test torpedoes, and larger boats for target practice.

In 1934, a massive moderisnation and investment programme was announced by Sir Charles Craven, head of Vickers-Armstrong, (this was mainly because of Germany's growing aggressive behaviour), it included all the groups engineering holdings (Vickers-Armstrong were now producing various types of guns, submarines, aircraft and tanks). Younger managers were brought in for the programme, fresh with new ideas, they were to turn the company upside down. Some staff were brought in from other works, and together, the new management team found alarming practices - manufacture of torpedoes were largely due to the individual craftsman's experience and skill - with no documentation what so ever produced.

Almost immediately, the assembly and test sequences for every item was documented. A survey of all plant and machinery was conducted, and replacement costs produced. This resulted in sufficient funding being available and numerous machines purchased and installed, including capstan lathes, pneumatic hammers and new heat treatment furnaces. Working practices were reviewed and overhauled - some radically - including the introduction of all Component Drawings and Operation Sequences, and a Production Control Section. For specialist tools, a Jig and Tool Office to design them, using the latest equipment. Production costs was another key factor, examined and re-structured suitable for mass production. The fruition of all this drastic and brave action brought additional new orders from the British Admiralty for torpedoes like the Mk Vies, (Mk VI and Mk X). Also by 1939, the workforce had increased from 600 in 1934, to over 1,700.

Sports and leisure activities slowly came back to the site over the years - including boating; fishing; swimming; polo and of course football and cricket, even though torpedo design had escalated considerably with numerous designs on the market from different company's. The British Admiralty used (as from and during World War Two) 21 inch for ships and submarines (this torpedo remains the regular service design - even in 1991), the 18 inch for aircraft. Improvements still continued on the 21 inch Whitehead Torpedo using aWhithead's "Burner Cycle" engine. phosphor-bronze two cylinder "flat twin" engine, which was designed by "Fiume" Jones. Initially, research concentrated on an "enriched air" engine, but was halted when the Brotherhood Company designed a new "Burner Cycle" (Pictured here), engine which utilised hydrogen peroxide. The "Burner Cycle" engine could eventually drive a 21 inch torpedo at up to 50 knots. By 1939, the 21 inch Mk VIII torpedo for submarines, Mk IX for ships and the 18 inch Mk XII for aircraft - were the only make of torpedo used by the British at this time - all using compressed air, allied to the "Burner Cycle" engine.

German arial photo of the Ferrybridge Works.With the outbreak of World War 2 (as expected) the Whitehead Torpedo Works became an enemy target for bombers and ships. Teams of guards were placed at the entrances of the harbour. Females were drafted in to replace the skilled men who had been sent into the Armed Forces. The site had many raids throughout the war although thankfully not too serious. Nonetheless some aspects of the torpedo manufacturing was moved to other (safer?) locations, so as to ensure a steady supply of torpedoes. Also, extra machinery was purchased for the new sites - some sites becoming as large as the Wykes Regis site itself. These new sites being at Bournemouth (around 97 machines - nearly a third of all machines - were moved here), and Street in Somerset, where the main manufacturing shops of Messer's C & J Clark Ltd (a boot and shoe company), received eighty one machines along with 250 workers, and the Linoleum Works and Shops of Messer's H Graham & Sons Ltd, in Staines, Middlesex.

The Street Works (in Somerset) started producing and testing the main sub-assemblies of the 18 inch and 21 inch torpedoes, and producing units like ARK and air blast Gyroscopes, servomotors, reducers, depth gaer and tail units. The Staines (Middlesex) complex was to produce the 21 inch torpedoes and air blast gyroscopes, but over 6,000 tons of heavy engineering plant had to be moved out and stored locally before any modifications to the workshops could be started. This included building been lined and heated, services laid on and jigs, machine tools and special equipment was purchased and installed. By 1943, torpedo output reached twenty, with the different units been produced as and when required, by a workforce of over 1,650 people (mostly from clothing factories in London).

As expected, Whitehead torpedoes were not the only ones being manufactured throughout Great Britain during the war. The total number of weapons expended up to September 1944 was 6,447, with Royal Naval Torpedo Factory at Greenock, producing the major share, along with small contributions from Morris Motors.

Even during the war, team spirit was a high priority, there were numerous sporting events and entertainment organised, especially pantomimes! As the war neared an end, the need of torpedoes reduced - a similar story in 1918! Street in Somerset was the first to close, followed by Staines in Middlesex. By 1945, Bournemouth works had closed as well. The race was on to capture engineering and manufacturing production of peacetime contracts suddenly becoming available.

Among some of the "peacetime" contracts won, was making machines for packaging soap, cigarettes, ice cream, soap flakes and butter. Pumps were made for oil and petrol, oil separators for Norway and even John Smith brewery of Todcaster, had stainless steel vats made. The Viscount aircraft had the intricate flap gear box and undercarriage pistons cylinders made. During this time, the British Admiralty decided to launch a new torpedo research programme. Among the designs were, at the time, pure science fiction to most; homing torpedoes, called "Pentane", then followed electric homing torpedo projects called "Bidder" (21 inch) and "Dealer" (18 inch); then the "Mackle" project which was wire guided torpedoes. Then followed a 24 inch jet propelled torpedo using solid fuel, at speeds close to 500 m.p.h, tested on a track 300 feet long and 80 feet high. 

Throughout the later part of the 1940's, through to the late 1950's, sport and entertainment expanded, producing some very strong teams, of which some reaching through the divisions up to Division One of the Dorset League.

Early in the 1960's, torpedoes were still being producing (although a small amount now), and in 1962, Vickers-Armstrong (Engineers) based in Itchen, Southampton, had amalgamated with Vickers-Armstrong, based in South Marston near Swindon. They became known as the Vickers-Armstrong (Engineers) Ltd, and was the catalyst to a re-organisation of Vickers-Armstrong in 1966, after developing the Accelerated Freeze Drying Process for food, and the Hovercraft. The Vickers-Armstrong Group decided to sell the Ferrybridge Works (at Wykes Regis) transferring many of the workforce to South Marston, which was to have a 300,000 investment programme for their Hydraulics Division. The main reason (possibly) is that South Marston had become the heart of Vickers research and production on nuclear and medical products, and was producing a range of pumps and valves, under agreement with the American firm Racine Hydraulics and Machinery Incorporated.

The Weymouth Works would close and it's proud workforce of 900 employees were offered to transfer to Swindon. This was still a massive blow for the famous and long established Ferrybridge Works to take. On the 31st March 1967, a Conveyance was signed by Vickers Ltd, to sell the Ferrybridge Works to a company called Wellworthy Ltd, and so ensuring that there would be employment for the engineering skilled people of the area.

Many of the Ferrybridge Works employees decided against moving to Swindon and took redundancy instead. Some were immediately re-employed by Wellworthy Ltd, a total of 100 staff took employment with Wellworthy Ltd, out of 148 employees on the Vickers books!

The new company had to repair and demolish quite a lot of the Ferrybridge site as it had deteriorated, before they could start production. Wellworthy's main industry was producing pistons, liners, piston rings and gudgeon pins. At other locations within the company produced compressors and valve seal inserts. By 1986, the Ferrybridge workforce of 350 were now part of a total workforce of 14,500 within the AE Group, (AE standing for "Assured Excellence").

Although a great deal of change occurred over the next few years, the Ferrybridge Works sadly closed when AE Piston Products (the result of a merger of Wellworthy and Hepworth and Grandage, in 1989 with a turnover of 125 million a year), announced it was closing down the site.Actual Foundation Stone - Copyrights to Doug Hollings.

After two years, the site was put up for sale, in 1998, it was sold and demolition and clearance of the site began. Local historians made a final search for the original foundation stone (never found after numerous searches over the years), laid by the Lady Countess Hoyos in April 1891. It was found, (see right), but sadly no other artifacts were found, probably found by local "Wykeite" hands.  It is reported that inside a cavity in the undertone were deposited a sealed bottle containing two or three small coins, Jubilee Shilling and a Half Crown, a copy of the London Times, Evening Standard and Southern Times.

Commemorative Stone - copyrights to Doug Hollings.The result is now a housing development, named "Harbour Point", resides on the old site. A suitable public resting place was found within the site for the foundation stone, along with a Portland Stone plinth with the words commemorating the fact that once upon a time the site was once the manufacturing home of the world famous Robert Whitehead torpedo.

(Please click on photograph to read the inscription.)




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