With the future of the Cowes Hammerhead Crane in the balance, we thought you’d appreciate some background as to why it’s so important. Many thanks to Sarah Burdett, Chairman, Isle of Wight Society, who sent us this history of the Cowes Hammerhead Crane – Ed.
In Cowes, the Hammerhead Crane towers above everything. It is a symbol of the once great ship building town. Without it, this aspect of our Island industry would be forgotten. It is a monument to the men, and women, who worked in the town.
Shipbuilding has been carried out at Cowes for hundreds of years. Wooden “Men o’ War” were built in East Cowes before 1700. HMS Jersey was a three-decker laid down in 1697 by Joseph Nye, who then went to Russia and developed shipbuilding at St. Petersburg for the Tsar.
Thomas White bought the old Nye’s yard in 1811 and Thetis yard in West Cowes. We had dry docks here well before Southampton even thought about them! John Samuel White, grandson of Thomas, grouped all the shipbuilding in East Cowes in 1898, and the fitting out on the west side of the Medina.
In 1912 the Cowes hammerhead crane was built by Babcock and Wilcox of Renfrew. This type of crane eventually dominated the skyline of shipyards all over the world. The Cowes crane is the only remaining pre-WWI hammerhead crane in England. The crane was used to lift enormous boilers and other machinery into the vessels.
53 Destroyers built during WW1 & WW2
In all, 27 destroyers were built in the towns during WWI, and during WWII 26 destroyers. This was in addition to very many smaller craft.
HMS Cavalier is the last remaining British destroyer from WWII. She was built here in 1944 and can be seen at Chatham, although we do have one of her propellers on East Cowes seafront! The Polish destroyer ORP Blyskawica, built here in 1936, is preserved at Gdynia.
The shipyards closed in 1965, and many people were made redundant. The crane remained operational until 2004, often capsizing locally built lifeboats to check their self-righting.
Grade 2* Listed in 2007 – now ‘At Risk’
The hammerhead crane was Listed as Grade 2* in 2007, but placed on the English Heritage “At risk” register in 2008. A survey in 2009 showed that the crane is structurally sound.
The Cowes Hammerhead Crane Trust has sourced funds from English Heritage to carry out necessary maintenance and repair works. Discussions are taking place with the County Council and the owner of the site as to the best way forward.
Reminder of our Marine Industrial Heritage
Hopefully this reminder of our Marine Industrial Heritage – the only reminder here in the town – will live on. As a focal point for the town, the land beneath the crane could become a riverside attraction that can be used by all. The local town council are interested in this idea.
The challenge is how to make the crane, and the maritime heritage that it represents, mean something to people today. The Cowes Hammerhead Crane Trust would welcome your help.
Get in touch to find out more
The Isle of Wight Society can be contacted at East Cowes Heritage Centre, which they run.