A personal interest in ships and waterways led Richard Martin to turn his research into a book. Jamie Bowman finds out more...

WINDING its way for 110km from its source in the Snowdonia National Park to where its estuary discharges into Liverpool Bay, the River Dee has dominated the North East Wales landscape for thousands of years.

At one time the Dee marked the traditional boundary of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Wales and under Norman rule, the Dee allowed Chester’s port to flourish.

In 1195 a monk, Lucian, wrote of Chester: “Ships from Aquitaine, Spain, Ireland and Germany unload their cargoes of wine and other merchandise.”

The port declined seriously from 1762 onwards, and by 1840 it could no longer effectively compete with Liverpool, although significant shipbuilding and ropemaking continued at Chester and it is this rich history of shipbuilding on the River Dee in the 19th century and beyond, that is explored in a new book, Ships of the Chester River, by Chester writer Richard Martin, which delves into the industrial development on the Dee Estuary, from Chester to the Point of Ayr.

Chester and District Standard:

With more than 800 seagoing vessels built on the river dating back 200 years, the book gives an insight into shipbuilding activity from 1800 to 1940, focusing on Chester and Connah’s Quay, but also other Deeside ports such as Sandycroft, Queensferry, Flint and Mostyn, and includes a comprehensive list of the vessels built on the Dee over the last two centuries.

Richard says: “I started researching this subject back in 1970 because I had an interest in ships and waterways from an early age.

“It’s been great to be able to complete the process and finish the book, particularly as there has been very little published about the ships built in the Dee and Chester area before.

“The book looks at what went on in the shipyards of the Dee. The notable vessels that were built, and the personal and financial successes and failures of the companies and individuals that built them, including George Cram, whose yard built the infamous ‘Royal Charter’, the largest vessel ever launched on the river.”

Chester and District Standard:

Using extensive research and interviews with some of those who have worked in the industry, Richard paints a picture of shipbuilding in the region, examining the vessels that traded deep sea to every corner of the world, even taking convicts to Australia.

Readers will also learn about the many Liverpool-based merchants who ordered vessels in Chester in the first half of the 19th century.

When Liverpool was expanding and the Dee in decline due to silting, it was shipbuilding that kept Chester alive as a port.

“Because the ships being built were light and without cargo, on a high tide you could launch them and get them out even though the Dee was silted up for ships laden with cargo,” explains Richard.

“Connah’s Quay became a busy port because it was at the end of the railway after 1862. It became important for shipping bricks, coal and things from the local area.”

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First-time author Richard has had an interest in shipping from childhood and worked in the Port industry in Liverpool for more than 40 years.

He started gathering material for the book almost 50 years ago when he was able to talk to some of those who had worked in the shipyards, which were in terminal decline by the 1950s.

“When you write a book like this it throws up all sorts of other leads, so I think there are a few more things to write,” he laughs. “I found out there were regular ships running cheese from Chester to London.

“It was a liner service of schooners known as contract cheese ships delivering Cheshire cheese, which was the only cheese used by the Royal Navy when they went sailing off around the world.

“Another thing I was astonished by was how many accidents there were in shipyards.

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“There were people killed when ships were launched and there were a lot of industrial accidents involved in shipbuilding.

“When ships were launched you’d find journalists in the local paper writing how a launch was successful if there were no accidents to report!”

Ships of the Chester River features more than 60 images and is available from bookshops, garden centres and museums on Merseyside and throughout Cheshire and North Wales, including The Bookshop in Mold