The story of the Dry Dock:
Appledore has always been a sea-faring place, with free-port status. In the 1580's there were 15 vessels and 115 mariners registered here. Many of these sailors are understood to have helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Fishing was a lucrative trade in the 16th and 17th Centuries both in the Bristol Channel and further afield as far as Newfoundland. In the 18th & 19th Centuries Appledore was in the deep-sea & coastal trade and many brigs were used to import domestic goods from Bristol & Liverpool, and coal & limestone from South Wales.
Before the Dock:
This view which was painted in 1798, shows Appledore before the dock was built. The site was a sandy creek, where ships were built & repaired, and moored against what was called 'Docton's Quay'. The houses of Marine Parade are recognisable, and the edge of this old Quay would have been where the middle of the road is now. (Painting: Thomas Girton 1798, courtesy Courtauld Institute.)
In the 1850's:
At this time William Yeo had 5 large ships that we engaged in the emigration trade. These were all lying at Appledore in 1855, and were called the 'Ocean Queen', 'Challenge', 'Crimea', 'Victory', and 'Alarm'. A diary was kept by a passenger emigrating on the Ocean Queen. Sailing from Appledore to Quebec, William Gliddon, says: "About half past four, we got under way with a good breeze, having on board a fine crew of 20, Mr Yeo, the pilot, 22 passengers, a pig, a cat, and a dog. Half past five, safe over the bar, the pilot and the owner took leave amid the cheers of all of board."
1856: The year the Dock was completed:
In 1856 there were 187 maritime accidents in the Bristol Channel involving the loss of 114 lives. Eight vessels were lost off the North Devon coast alone. Lifeboats were stationed at Appledore, Northam Burrows and Braunton. However, the greatest shipping need was for good repair facilities. Even though Appledore was smaller than it is today, in 1856 there were 17 pubs in the village. These catered for shipyard workers and seamen who needed a much-needed relief from life on board ship.
Derivation of name:
'Richmond Dock' was named after 'Richmond Bay' in Prince Edward Island, where the Yeo Family Shipbuilding operations were based. · 'Richmond Bay' was named after Charles Lennox, the 3rd Duke of Richmond, who had commissioned a survey of the island in 1764. · The title of the 'Duke of Richmond' dates from just after the Norman Conquest, when the lands of Earl Edwin in North Yorkshire were allocated to Alan Rufus by William the Conqueror. · He gave it the name 'Richmond', which comes from the Old-French 'Riche-Monte' a common French place name which means strong hill.
Why was the Dock needed?:
At the end of the 18th century, English oak for shipbuilding was in short supply, so timber was imported from the Baltic. When Napoleon imposed an embargo, a new source was needed. Prince Edward Isle in Canada, was found to have timber of just the right quality for ship-building, and James Yeo from Kilkhampton (just over the border in Cornwall), went to assess the situation. Whilst there, he had the idea of building ships to a seaworthy stage, packing them with timber, and sending them to the Torridge for completion. His son William Yeo organised the fitting out work in Appledore, but the work was done on the open shore, and this depended on the tides.
Construction of the Dock:
A dry dock was badly needed, and so the Richmond Dock was created. Construction started in 1853 in a sandy creek known as 'The Parlour', and was completed 3 years later. This entailed the demolition of some alms-houses close to the site, and the construction of outbuildings, rigging lofts, saw mills and smith shops. When finished, the dock brought work and prosperity to Appledore, not only in ship repairing, but in many other maritime trades, from boat building & sail making to rope making & chandlery. The resulting Dry Dock was 330 feet long, 36 feet wide, and could hold 2 large vessels at once.
The first ship:
The first ship to be sailed over from Prince Edward Island, and brought into the Dock, arrived on 17 July 1856. She was a barque of about 1,200 tons called the "Elizabeth Yeo" after William's wife Elizabeth. The Bideford Gazette described the event as follows: "Flags were waving in all directions, guns firing and crowds of people striving for advantageous positions from which to behold the entrance of the splendid vessel, which was safely brought into the dock and secured amidst the hurrahs of the assembled multitudes."
William Yeo's success in timber-importing & ship-repairing made him Appledore's main employer, and elevated him to the position of local squire, and he built himself a grand mansion at the top of the hill, called 'Richmond House'. He looked after his workers well when times were bad, but of course he also made enemies, and anyone who questioned his methods, found that few would do business with them. William had 6 daughters, but only 1 son, and when this son died at the age of 8, there was no-one left to carry on the business. After William himself died in 1872, the work dried up, and depression hit Appledore.
In 1882, Robert Cock acquired the lease on Richmond Dry-dock from Yeo's executors. Robert's son William was already building ships at the Tavern Yard (next to the Seagate Hotel), but now the Richmond Dock was used again, and about 100 men were employed here on a regular basis, although more were hired during busy times.
Wooden shipbuilding was declining in the late 19th Century, and in 1896 the first steel vessel was built in the so called 'Iron Yard' just up river. This was the future of shipbuilding, but it involved completely new trades and investment in machinery. Robert Cock, and his sons James & Frank brought this to the yard. From then on steam-tugs, trawlers & cargo-ships were the order of the day.
Richmond Yard came back onto the market in 1932 when Cock Brothers went into liquidation. It was bought by the Harris family, who wanted to expand their already well-established shipbuilding & repair business in Appledore. However, the economic depression of the 1930's was deepening, ship repair work was reduced to cut-throat prices, and scarcity of employment meant that wages were kept low.
With the onset of World War II in 1939, there was plenty of work: old wooden sailing ships were converted for barrage-balloon defence; motor gun-boats, landing-craft & wooden mine-sweepers for the Admiralty were needed. The contribution of Appledore workers to the war effort cannot be under-stated. Hours of work were 8:00-8:00pm Monday to Saturday, and on Sundays until noon, and some 20 women were also employed here.
Steel shipbuilding continued, it was hard work winning orders, but in 1957 more tugs were being built here than in any other place in Britain. In 1959 a tower crane was erected on the site to assist in heavy lifting of materials. But by 1963 the yard was in financial difficulties, the bank refused to put more credit into the Company, and the yard closed overnight.
A survival package was quickly formed by local businessmen and their M.P., who created a new company called 'Appledore Shipbuilders Ltd', and work again resumed in the Richmond Dock. A 20-ton travelling crane was erected in 1968. However, expansion was necessary, and a new covered shipyard was built on Bidna Marsh just up the river, which opened in 1970. Richmond Dock & Yard were now only suitable for the construction & repair of tugs & small coasters, a market in which the new Shipbuilding Company was not interested. The Dock soon fell into disuse, and has only occasionally been used since, for ship refurbishment and repairs.
The Dock is still mostly disused, and the travelling crane, installed in 1968, was removed in June 2004. A group was formed in January 2005 called: Celebrating Appledore's Shipping Heritage (C.A.S.H. for short), and this group have arranged for these boards to be displayed here, to tell the history of this important site. Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund in this respect.
The site is recognised as being of special historical importance, it is Grade II* listed, and has the potential to be a Maritime Heritage Centre, which if realised, would contribute towards the general regeneration of the North Devon area. C.A.S.H. are exploring the possibilities of achieving this long-term vision.