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The Centenary of the Cowes Hammerhead Crane 1912–2012

Picture of Hammerhead Crane

The centenary of the 1912 Cowes Hammerhead Crane is more than just the 100 year survival of this historic structure, fantastic though that is with so many other giant cranes demolished across the country, and it being the only survivor of these ship building leviathans in England.

It is also about remembering the passage of time over which it presided and the hive of activity of which it was the centre; the hammering, the grinding, the whirring of great machinery, the whistles, the sirens, and the shouts of thousands of men and women working in the shipyards and streaming to and from the John Samuel White’s shipyard every day.

100 years contains so many stories, memories and experiences of the people who worked there. Shipbuilding was the principle business and essence of Cowes, and continues to be, albeit on a smaller scale. The magnificent giant hammerhead crane is all that is left to remind people of this.

The prominent landmark remains as a symbol of the technological superiority Cowes claimed in building leading edge ships. With boilers and turbines designed by Whites, ships built at Cowes could achieve speeds of 35 Knots, 30% faster than traditional reciprocating steam engines of the time, and still fast by today’s standards.

And just think about the men and women, the apprentices, the craftsmen, the draughtsmen, the engineers, the fitters, the managers, the directors, the tea trolley girls, who would gaze up with pride at the crane. So many people you meet in Cowes today are ex shipyard workers with stories to tell of those exciting times. Like Bill and Vic in the ‘Island Society’ who were apprentices in the yards. They remember well the operation of the hammerhead crane, together with the gantry cranes running high up inside the massive boiler and turbine workshops which are still there today, including one of the older manual chain driven gantry cranes.

The gantry cranes, some lifting 50 tons, were DC powered from the same electrical switchboard that survives and served the hammerhead crane today. The gantry cranes moved the boilers and turbines along the workshop production process along the narrow gauge railway lines, and on underneath the hammerhead crane for lifting down into the ships engine rooms.

Picture of Production of White Forster Boilers
Production of White Forster Boilers

And Bill and Vic recall how, just as apprentices do today, given half the chance they would lark around as they worked. In a small seat high above the workshops sat the crane driver waiting for calls to work the crane, lifting and shifting, and then again waiting, and of course occasionally dozing off between calls to work the machinery. Young apprentices would then creep out and make the high pitched– “ooo eeee ooo” call used to alert the crane driver to the next job, just to wake the driver up with a start and peer far below, only to see no-one around.

There are the stories of the hammerhead crane drivers, getting up the courage for that first climb 70 feet up those tower stairs onto the turntable, then more courage needed to walk out along the jib far above the River Medina below. Then sitting in the control cabin moving the big rheostat levers across the round copper contacts, the sparks, sizzle, crack and smell, to increase or decrease the speed of slewing or lifting, moving the ‘Jenny’ hook carriage back and forward along the jib, with that massive hook ‘Big John’, or the smaller hook, ‘little Lora’, watching the hand signals on the ground, looking at where the load is going, stamping down on the foot pedal brakes.

It was a responsible job and no-one wanted to drop or damage those boilers or turbines over which so many work mates had sweated to build.

Picture of The 80 Ton Main Hook ‘Big John’
The 80 Ton Main Hook ‘Big John’

So it was that these engineers, artisans and shipbuilders won the contract in 1911 to build 6 destroyers for the Chilean Navy. The County Press records the launch of the Chilean destroyer Tome from East Cowes in September 1912 to the sounds of ships sirens and horns, and the sight of the newly installed giant hammerhead crane swinging its jib to and fro in salute.

The Hammerhead Crane was ordered from Babcock and Wilcox of Renfrew in Scotland in 1911 on the back of the Chilean navy order and to enable the installation of the newly designed engine turbines and ‘White-Forster’ water tube boilers that would drive the destroyers into action.

The Cowes hammerhead crane is one of the earliest examples of these great steel structures and is a superb feat of grand scale engineering with powerful DC electric motors capable of lifting up to 80 tons. The control and drive machinery itself are fine examples of British mechanical and electrical engineering design and precision.

Over the last 100 years the hammerhead crane has played its part in building a wide range of ships as technology and marine architecture evolved; from those Chilean destroyers in 1912, to luxury steam yachts, passenger ferries and cargo steamers.

Picture of Cargo Steamer ‘Hitherwood’ 1922
Cargo Steamer ‘Hitherwood’ 1922

Fighting ships included WW2 destroyers including HMS Cavalier, the only WW2 destroyer to have survived. She was saved in 1977 by Earl Mountbatten of Burma and is now preserved at Chatham’s historic Dockyard as a memorial to the 143 British destroyers and over 11,000 men lost at sea during WW2.

Picture of Grom, Blyskawica, Intrepid and Impulsive c1936
Grom, Blyskawica, Intrepid and Impulsive c1936

The two ultra fast Polish destroyers ORP Grom and ORP Blyskawica were built at Cowes. Both ships served in WW2 with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and on the Normandy landings. In May 1942 the ORP Blyskawica defended the town during an air-raid whilst being refitted under the 1912 Cowes hammerhead crane. She is now preserved at Gdynia in Poland. The ORP Blyskawica is famous in Cowes there now being an annual event to celebrate her action that night in defending Cowes.

Production continued under the crane with modern frigates, ferries, passenger steamers, cargo vessels, lightships, and the final ship to be built for the Royal Navy, HMS Arethusa launched in November 1963 ending 270 years of building warships at Cowes.

Picture of Cover picture ‘White’s of Cowes’
Cover picture ‘White’s of Cowes’

Shipbuilding continued with cargo vessels and lifeboats for the RNLI. A large number of RNLI Lifeboats were built at Cowes with the 1912 hammerhead crane being used to conduct capsizing tests during commissioning of the vessels.

Many of these lifeboats are preserved around the country. The last commercial operation of the crane was a capsizing test for a Tamar class lifeboat in 2004.

The hammerhead crane has languished since then, its fate in the hands of a property developer who has kindly included the restoration of the crane as part of the development of the ‘Medina Village’ to be built on the bank of the River Medina over the grounds of the former shipyards.

The Cowes Hammerhead Crane was formed to be the cranes ‘voice’ ensuring that it is preserved not as a dumb artefact, but as a functioning crane, a living landmark of the Island, of Cowes and of the shipbuilding industry that was the beating heart of Cowes and the economic engine of the Island for so many years.

The Future

As reported last year the continuing financial recession continues to delay the development of the overall site which includes restoration of the Crane. But time is passing and works are now needed quickly to halt the accelerating decay and stabilise the structure.

The key issue that the Trust faces is how to work with the council on an Urgent Works Notice for the interim repairs that have been identified to slow down this deterioration of the Crane whilst the site development is approved.

When the restoration is complete the Trust would like to see the Crane re-commissioned able to demonstrate the operation of the crane’s machinery, educate people in our maritime heritage and inspire youngsters to enter into engineering careers.

The Trust

The Cowes Hammerhead Crane Buildings Preservation Trust was formed in 2005 as a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity to ensure that the Crane is restored as a fully functioning Crane in its historic public space setting, and that it is preserved in perpetuity for the people of Cowes and indeed the nation.

The challenge is how to revive the Crane, and the maritime heritage it represents, for the people who worked in the shipyards, and for the people who will live in and visit Cowes in the future.

The Trust continues to have excellent support from the Isle of Wight Industrial Archaeological Society, the IoW Council, English Heritage and the Architectural Heritage Fund.

Interested to donate, join or help the Trust?


or call Jon Fisher on 01983 293755

Website: External link image

Photographs reproduced with the kind permission of Dave L. Williams, author of ‘Whites of Cowes’.

This page was last edited on: 26th January, 2022 17:50:33

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