A HUNDRED YEARS OF TOWAGE, HISTORY OF WILLIAM WATKINS, LTD., 1833-1933, by Frank C. Bowen. Gravesend and Dartford Reporter, 1933 [ebook]


Hardcover book, blue cloth 8.75”x 5.5” title embossed title in gilt. pp.215, 18 B&W half tone photos and engravings, numerous (uncredited) pen and ink sketches of tugs, from earliest times to post Great War, in the text.


William Watkins Ltd was one  of the first tugboat owning companies in the world, and was founded by John Rogers Watkins in 1833.

The activities of the firm were not confine to towing vessels into and out of harbour, but they assisted at launches, in the days of sailing clippers, they patrolled the approaches to the Thames to offer a faster pasage up the river, and were ready to offer “salvage”to ships which might have run aground or become becalmed. Once steamships became common, the up-river tows were less frequent, but there were plenty of business opportunities rescuing cases of engine failure, and towing breakdowns often considerable distances to their home ports to discharge cargoes and be repaired.

One of the best known of the tows that William Watkins undertook was that of Cleopatra’s Needle travelling from Egypt in an unpowered pontoon, which broke loose when under tow, and was rescued from Ferrol  by the three funneled paddle tug Anglia (known as “Three Fingered Jack) in 1878.

Between 1833 and 1918 Watkins had vessels taken up for Government service in both the War with Russia  and the Great War.

The company continued to grow in the 1930s and by 1939 owned seventeen steam tugs. During WW2 many of Watkins tugs were again requisitioned by the Government, and several took part directly in the Dunkirk evacuation. Java is reputed to have been the first tug from Britain to reach Dunkirk, and her Dunkirk “plaque”, subsequently awarded to all vessels that took part in the operation, was lodged in the St Andrews Waterside church in Gravesend when she was scrapped. Three tugs were lost during the war,

In 1950 Ship Towage [London] Limited was formed, being an amalgamation of the fleets of William Watkins Ltd [14 tugs], Elliott Steam Tug Company [2 tugs] and Gamecock Tugs Limited [4 tugs]. On the first day of May 1965 they also took control of the four ship towing tugs of Gaselee and Son Ltd., and on the 27th of January 1969 W H J Alexander Ltd. [Sun Tugs], joined the group and the whole combine was retitled London Tugs Limited, having a total fleet of thirtysix tugs. This company operated until 1st of January 1975, when it was taken over by the Alexandra Towing Co. Ltd of Liverpool and the last remaining links with the original London owners were finally broken.

This is an extremely detailed book, practically a year by year, blow by blow account of the firm’s activities. All tugs are reported, with building dates (and sometimes builders) given, as are significant jobs. Unfortunately, there is no index, or table of vessels, so it can be difficult to trace a tug’s career from building, through re-engining or re boilering, to sale or scrapping. Nevertheless, a very interesting read.



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