Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 15, 2019
Webpage revised: September 15, 2019




The Plymouth business house of Messrs Willoughby (Plymouth) Limited, iron founders and marine engineers, was located at the Plymouth Great Western Docks and in Rendle Street, Plymouth, before and for a few years after the Second World War.

Mr William Willoughby, from Illogan, Cornwall, founded the business in 1844.  By 1850, when he and his Cornish wife, Mary, had five sons and four daughters, he was in partnership at the Central Foundry and Engineering Works, Rendle Street, with a Mr Joseph Murch but the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent on April 19th 1855.  In 1864 the business was known as Messrs Willoughby Brothers.

The brothers, all born in East Stonehouse, were: James, born 1828; William, born 1829; John, born 1834; Joseph, born 1839; and Samuel, born 1843.  At the time of the census in 1851 William was already a smith and John was apprenticed to an iron founder, probably his father.

Mr William Willoughby passed away at his home, Number 3 Clarendon Terrace, Plymouth, on Sunday September 7th 1879 and was buried in a family vault at Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Cemetery, Ford Park, on Thursday September 11th 1879.    He was 74 years of age.  His sons took over the running of the business until the then senior partner, Mr James Willoughby (1828-1882), 'calmly expired' at 3am on Sunday September 10th 1882, almost exactly three years after his father.  He was only 53 years of age.  William Willoughby then became the senior partner.

In 1890 Willoughby Brothers became a registered limited liability company, with its office in Rendle Street.  Capital was 30,000 in 10 shares.  At this time they took over the Phoenix Foundry in Phoenix Street, which previously belonged to James Moir junior.  This was closed around 1900 to 1904.

It was around this time that they purchased the extensive building shed of Messrs Watson and Fox at the Plymouth Great Western Docks, which came with the Graving Dock or Dry Dock.  Until then they had cast the steel parts of boats at the works and move them to Richmond Walk at Devonport for piecing them together.  This was not very convenient.  From 1891 onwards they were able to construct steel ships in the former Graving Dock

The first vessel to be so built was the "Conqueror", for Mr G Etheridge, of London.  She was to run as a tug on the River Thames.  Built of steel, but with an iron deck and teak bridge, she was 69 feet long, 14 feet in breadth and 8 feet 6 inches deep.  At 3pm on the afternoon of Thursday July 9th 1891 she made her first trail trip, first out and around the Sound and then, after picking up some more passengers, up the river to Calstock and back.  Those on board included Mr S Willoughby, the managing director; Mr G F Youlton, the chairman of the Company; Mr T Harris, the secretary; Mr A Groser; and Mr W Willoughby. Mr George F Watson, the surveyor and ship builder who previously owned the yard, also travelled with the party and was later retained by the Messrs Willoughby Brothers to superintend the construction of vessels at Millbay Docks.  Mr Blowey, the optician, of Southside Street, supplied the ship's compass.  All were well pleased with the ship and on Tuesday July 14th 1891 she left for London.  Messrs Willoughby Brothers Limited looked forward to more orders for such vessels, which they could now construct up to a length of about 250 feet in their new facilities.

The Company went on to build vessels for the Royal Mail Steamship Company; the Suez Canal Company; the Hythe Ferry across Southampton Water; Messrs Beckett, Hill & Company, of Liverpool; floating bridges for the Torpoint Ferry; another one for Saltash Corporation to be used on the Saltash Ferry; and the Tamar steamers "Princess Royal", "Albert" and "Prince", owned by the Saltash Steamboat Company.

On Thursday January 30th 1908 Mr William Willoughby, the second son of the founder, passed away at his home in Saint George's Terrace, Saltash Road, Plymouth.  For some reason as yet unclear, the Company went in to receivership on January 31st 1908. 

That Company was dissolved on January 8th 1915 and a new one, Messrs Willoughby (Plymouth) Limited was set up.

On May 2nd 1924 the Company announced that it would be transferring their staff and machinery from Rendle Street to the premises inside the Plymouth Great Western Docks and that the Great Western Railway Company would be modernizing the Dry Dock.

To the south of the Dry Dock, or Graving Dock, were another engineering firm, Messrs Bickle Engineering Limited.  In 1958 the two businesses amalgamated but remained operating as distinct units.  Both ceased trading on Saturday November 29th 1969, largely, it was claimed at the time, because the British Transport Dock Board was unwilling to spend at least 100,000 on repairing the Dock, which was filled in the following year.