Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company – a hope for the future?

Post-First World War was a time to look to the future and given the large numbers of returning men there was a pressing need for jobs. A Culture volunteer working on the Poole History Centre First World War project explores the short history of one attempt to develop a shipbuilding industry in Poole.

As early as November 1917 there was talk of creating a massive shipbuilding industry in Poole. Iron ore would be imported from Spain, after which it would be smelted, turned into steel and then engine components manufactured – all in Poole. It was claimed that orders for more than 40 ships would follow when the company was up and running. Captain Gardiner, who lived at ‘The Birches’, Parkstone, and was behind the scheme, hoped to have the first ship finished by August 1918. He claimed that this would be aided by special ‘secret’ machines from America which would mean the company could build ships much cheaper than in traditional shipyards. At the time, there was a heavy loss of shipping because of submarine warfare and there was a great need for new ships. The project went into abeyance because it was nearly two years before anything further happened.

A letter dated 8 August 1919 was received by Poole Harbour Commissioners announcing that Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company had purchased the Admiralty Shipyard Extensions No 62 (formerly the Hill, Richards and Co Ltd shipyard) at Hamworthy. The company had been contracted to build twelve 7,600 ton ships. The keels for the initial two were to be laid shortly and February 1920 was the expected launch date. They expected to utilise the existing six berths and had plans for two 10,500 ton ships and two liners for the Atlantic trade. The letter expressed a hope that Poole Bar, just outside the entrance to the harbour, would be dredged as quickly as possible to aid the project.

The prospectus for the Gardiner Shipbuilding and Engineering Company was published on 15 December 1919. The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper reported that the value of the twelve ships to be built by the company was £2.25 million. It was also hoped to carry out repair work. The advantage of the project was that the Lake Shipyard was already fitted out and had an existing workforce on the 151 acre site. It was anticipated that it would be ‘one of the largest’ shipbuilding companies in the country.

The shipyard had the benefit of a rail link to the London & South Western Railway mainline and this would allow materials to be easily delivered. It was anticipated that it would employ, when fully operational, 2,500 to 3,000 men. It was also expected to attract other businesses to Hamworthy and its branch line would become highly important to the area. The housing shortage in Poole would be alleviated as Captain Gardiner proposed using some of the 300 acres of his own land for the construction of a ‘garden city’ of 500 houses in Hamworthy. Gardiner had purchased Lake House in 1919.

Who was Captain Gardiner? According to a newspaper article, he was born in Manchester, was 52 years of age in 1920 and was in the Royal Navy during the First World War. Apparently, he was in command of a ‘Q’ boat, used in combatting submarine warfare, which sailed out of Poole.

It was reported on November 20 1919 that the first ship would be finished by May 1920 and the remainder would be completed ‘every six weeks’. The company hoped to start work on two liners in February 1920. Oddly, it was also announced that nearly 2,000 men would be transferred from the Clyde shipyards.

A newspaper article of January 15 1920 said that 3 keels had been laid. A few months later, it was reported that the ships would have their engines and boilers added at Glasgow which meant they would have to be towed to the Clyde. A concern with shipping movements in and out of Poole Harbour was the restriction placed by the bar of sand just outside the harbour entrance. However, it was said that no dredging was needed as the vessels would only have a draft of 9ft while the Poole Harbour Bar had a draft of 16ft at high water spring tides.

The prospect for Poole, the harbour and jobs was considered very bright. However, just a few months later, a compulsory winding-up order against Gardiner Shipbuilding was announced. Spanish companies wanted the return of £400,000 that had been paid for ships which had not been delivered – although there was disagreement over whether the money had been paid. A merchant banker was prepared to give £200,000 based on the value of the company’s assets but would require more time to raise the funds.

Another debt of £430 was claimed by a Birmingham company. Captain Gardiner alleged he was owed £50,000 by Gardiner Shipbuilding but it was also claimed he owed the company £21,000. It was stated that the financial problems had arisen because the company was paid in instalments for work in progress and these payments had not been made. Captain Gardiner believed that the company would be able to continue to function as he was in the process of raising £250,000 of capital.

In December 1920, an article in the local newspaper said that a compulsory order was being sought for the liquidation of the company because of unpaid debts. The company claimed it had ‘bills of exchange for £10,000’ in a foreign currency and these could be used to pay the debts when converted into British pounds. It was agreed that the order would be dismissed if the money was paid.

However, in March 1921 there were two winding-up petitions against Gardiner Shipbuilding – the Campania Naviera Mundaca Sociedad Anonima and W.G. Armstrong Whitworth & Co. claimed they were owed a total of £293,000. The Gardiner Company wanted further time as they were awaiting the result of the international War Reparations Committee concerning a loan of 42 million francs for major shipbuilding projects that had been requested by the company. The case was adjourned for a week but the newspaper article noted that the shipyard had not done any work since July 1920.

There is a strange ending to this story. Clara, his first wife, died when bailiffs were about to take over Lake House. A law forbade bailiffs from going into a dwelling if a body was ‘at rest’ and Gardiner had his wife’s body kept in the house for around two years. She was eventually buried in Hamworthy Parish Cemetery in 1921. A large crypt was built and can still be seen in the cemetery; strangely, there appears to be no inscription.

Hamworthy Cemetery

Hamworthy Cemetery

And what happened to Captain Gardiner? In 1925, he was on trial at the Old Bailey, London accused of a £200,000 fraud relating to when he was managing director of Gardiner Shipbuilding in Poole. It was alleged he had published false information to encourage people to take out shares in the company. The seriousness of the case meant that the startling amount of £60,000 was the reward for his capture. The case and his life story captured the public imagination. An Australian newspaper article had the headline ‘Picturesque Hero of Astonishing Adventure’. The article outlined his remarkable life which involved taking part in a revolution in Chile, being on the side of the Chinese in the Chino-Japanese War, commanding Australian troops during the Boer War, and being on a minelayer during the Russo-Japanese War. During the First World War, he carried out salvage work on the ‘Oceanic’, invented several anti-submarine devices, commanded a ‘Q’ boat, and claimed he was involved in the planning of the Zeebrugge blockade. Part way through the trial the jury concluded there was no case to be answered and Gardiner was released.

He died at the Seaman’s Hospital, Greenwich, in 1930 and is believed to be buried alongside Clara in Hamworthy Parish Cemetery.

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