The Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, Limited was a shipyard and iron works based at Leamouth, the junction of Bow Creek and the River Thames. Its main activity was shipbuilding, but it also diversified into civil engineering, marine engines, cranes, electrical engineering and motor cars.
The company originated in 1837 as the Ditchburn and Mare Shipbuilding Company, founded by shipwright Thomas J. Ditchburn and the engineer and naval architect Charles Mare. Originally located at Deptford, after a fire destroyed their yard the company moved to Orchard Place in 1838, between the East India Dock Basin and Bow Creek. There they took over the premises of the defunct shipbuilders William and Benjamin Wallis.
The firm did well and within a few years occupied three sites covering an area of over 14 acres (0.022 sq mi; 0.057 km2).
Ditchburn and Mare were among the first builders of iron ships in the area; their partnership commenced with the construction of small paddle steamers of between 50 and 100 tons, before progressing to cross-Channel vessels and by 1840 were building ships of more than 300 tons. The company's early customers included the Iron Steamboat Company and the Blackwall Railway Company, several paddle steamers being constructed for the latter, including the Meteor and the Prince of Wales, which operated between Gravesend and the company's station on Brunswick Wharf.
In this period the company was also awarded several contracts by the Admiralty, including HMS Recruit (a 12-gun brig) which was one of the first iron warships built. They also constructed the P & O Company's steamers Ariel and Erin.
Thomas Ditchburn retired in 1847 and the business was carried on by Charles Mare, under the name of C.J. Mare and Company. He was joined by naval architect James Ash, who later began his own shipyard at Cubitt Town.
Mare constructed a yard with furnaces and rolling mills that could construct vessels of 4,000 tons; because of the narrowness of the spit at the mouth of the River Lea, the Orchard Place site was limited to the construction of vessels of less than 1000 tons. In 1853 the company launched the SS Himalaya for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, briefly the world's largest passenger ship before becoming a naval troopship.
In 1855, the company which by now had more than 3000 employees, was threatened with closure following Mare's bankruptcy. It is thought by some that his financial difficulties arose from delays in payment for completed work or, alternatively, that the company had miscalculated the cost of building vessels for the Royal Navy. The business did not lack orders, having in hand six contracts for gunboats and the contract for Westminster Bridge (which was built in 1862).
The company's chief creditors moved to keep the company in operation, and two employees, Joseph Westwood and Robert Baillie were appointed works managers. The main figure in saving the company was Peter Rolt, Mare's father-in-law and Conservative MP for Greenwich. Rolt was also a timber merchant and a descendant of the Pett shipbuilding family.
Rolt took control of the company's assets and in 1857 transferred them to a new limited company, named the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd.. It had a capital of £100,000 in 20 shares of £5000 each, five of which were held by Rolt who was the main shareholder and also chairman of the board.
The new company was the largest shipbuilder on the Thames, its premises described by the Mechanics' Magazine in 1861 as "Leviathan Workshops". Large scale Ordnance Survey maps of the 1860s show the yard occupying a large triangular site in a right-angled bend on the east bank of Bow Creek with the railway to Thames Wharf on the third side, and with a smaller site on the west bank. The main yard had a quay 1,050 feet (320m) long. To the south-east the yard occupied the north bank of the Thames east of Bow Creek, with two slips giving direct access to the main river. Today the site is crossed by the A1020 Lower Lea Crossing and the Docklands Light Railway south of Canning Town station.
By 1863 the company had the capacity to build 25,000 tons of warships and 10,000 tons of mail steamers simultaneously. One of its first Admiralty contracts was for HMS Warrior, launched in 1860, at the time the world's largest warship and the first iron-hulled, armoured frigate. HMS Minotaur soon followed in 1863, 400 feet (120 m) and 10,690 tons displacement.
Work on vessels such as Minotaur was performed on the Canning Town side of the Lea, and this is where the Thames Ironworks expanded from less than 10 acres (0.016 sq mi; 0.040 km2) in 1856 to 30 acres (0.047 sq mi; 0.121 km2) by 1891. While the old site at Orchard Place was still the company's official address until 1909, its presence there was minimal, by the late 1860s the company having only a 5 acres (0.008 sq mi; 0.020 km2) site there.
General shipbuilding on the Thames came under great pressure due to the cost advantages of northern yards with closer supplies of coal and iron, and many yards closed following the 1866 financial crisis. Of the survivors, those like the Thames Ironworks were specialised in warships and liners.
Following the success of HMS Warrior and HMS Minotaur, orders were placed by navies all over the world, and vessels were built for Denmark, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the Ottoman Empire. The yard also built the Prussian Navy's first iron-hulled warship, the SMS König Wilhelm in 1869 and the cruiser Alfonso de Alburquerque for Portugal in 1883.
In the 1890s philanthropist Arnold Hills became the managing director. He had originally joined the board of directors of the works in 1880 at the age of 23. Hills was one of the first business directors to voluntarily introduce an 8 hour day for his workers at a time when 10 and 12 hour shifts were more common in industrial work.
In 1895 Hills helped to set up a football club for the Works' employees, Thames Ironworks F.C. and within their first two years they had entered the FA Cup and the London League. As a result of the committee's desire to employ professional players, the Thames Ironworks F.C. was wound up in June 1900 and West Ham United F.C. was formed a month later.
During its lifetime the yard produced 144 warships and numerous other vessels. In 1911 Hills petitioned Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, regarding the lack of new orders. He was unsuccessful, and the yard was forced to shut in 1912. Within two years Britain was at war with Germany, with the yard's last major ship taking part in the Battle of Jutland.
The Thames Ironworks formed a works football team, called Thames Ironworks Football Club, This club later become West Ham United, whose emblem of the crossed hammers represents riveting hammers used in the shipbuilding trade. West Ham United are known as "The Hammers" for this reason.