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  • Writer's picturePaul Whittle


In 1896, under contract with the Lords of the Admiralty, Sir John Jackson Ltd. was required to supply “...materials for concrete for use on the Keyham Dockyard extension......” as part of the continuing development of the Devonport Dockyard complex in Devon. The “materials for concrete” were sand and shingle which Sir John intended to source from local waters and in doing so was to raise matters which, from time to time, still resonate in the modern aggregate dredging industry and possibly saw the first use of a suction dredger for winning aggregates in British waters.

Sir John’s 5th August 1896 letter to the Under Secretary of the Board of Trade states that he had “…already made arrangements with Exeter Corporation for dredging in the River Axe with a view to securing a slurry of sand and shingle...with a view of expediting the Keyham Dock Yard work, preventing as much as practicable any possibility of delay from lack of materials”. The letter apparently accompanied an application to dredge stated areas and included a clue as to how he intended to win the material when he wrote “….For the purpose of loading such shingle as we do not dredge it may be necessary to erect a small jetty…” It would appear that the application to dredge was granted as, on 7th December 1896, the Lincoln’s Inn Fields legal firm representing “…the Honourable Mark Rolls and his Trustees who are owners of the greater part of the Town of Exmouth and entitled to the foreshore as Lords of the Manor…” wrote to The Secretary of the Board of Trade stating “…we are instructed to call the attention of the Board of Trade to the dredging operations in front of the Town which, in communication with the Corporation of Exeter, have been commenced by Sir John Jackson, and are contemplated on a very considerable scale. There is reason to fear that such dredging may result in the formation of a new channel which might seriously damage Exmouth…”

The outcome of this letter of concern was to end the River Exe dredging so, in April of the following year Sir John Jackson, having signed an agreement with the Woods and Forests Department and the Board of Trade to pay £50 per annum in order “…to dredge and carry away all sand, shingle and other like material from that portion of the bed of the sea below the low water mark at Start Bay, and opposite Hall Sands and Beeson Sand......” commenced dredging operations in the area “…first using a bucket-ladder dredger which was later replaced by two suction-pump dredgers…”

The two suction dredgers mentioned were thought to be the Myrtle and Turtle which had been towed from Dover after Sir John Jackson’s contract to construct a new harbour to the east of Admiralty Pier was completed.

Photo of the dredgers working in Start Bay off Hallsands

If they are the Myrtle and Turtle they may well be

the first marine aggregate suction dredgers to be used on the Coast of the UK.

In 1901 concern expressed by the inhabitants of Hallsands and their Member of Parliament Col. Frank B.Mildmay regarding the adverse effect the dredging was having on the Hallsands beach, saw one Captain Frederick commissioned by the Board of Trade to visit Hallsands and report upon the situation. Said report gives a little more detail of how the dredging operation was carried out when it mentions that “… the nature (of the seabed) is such that it is easily transported by the action the sea, and has a general tendency to be drawn down to fill the holes made by the dredger.”

Further on the report appears to indicate that the dredger is moored in some way when it mentions “….buoys have been laid down by the contractor at regular intervals to enable the dredger to quickly pick up her position, while anchors and bolts have been placed above the high water mark to which breast fasts are secured.” And again “The presence of the dredger, tugs and barges with the accompanying buoys and moorings are especially detrimental to seine fishing (in the area)….”

Lastly, a grainy photo “…of a dredger at work in Start Bay” in ‘The Tragedy of Hallsands Village’ by John L. Harvey appears shows the bows of two ship shaped vessels, one of which at least has a traditional looking ship’s funnel, with a stout (mooring?) rope secured in bights along her hull.

There were therefore one, perhaps two, suction dredgers working on the contract which discharged into a shuttle service of steam driven hopper barges with a capacity of 1100 tons each which carried the aggregate to Devonport. This is confirmed in chapter 4, entitled ‘The Coming of the Dredger’of Ruth & Frank Milton’s book ‘Sisters Against The Sea’.

The Coast Guard reported 97,000 tons of shingle was removed in 1900 and 104,000 tons the following year. Captain Frederick’s report contributed to the Board of Trade’s decision to revoke Sir John Jackson’s licence in January 1902 but not before a total of 650,000 tons had been removed and “..the mischief (to Hallsands village) had already been done”.

Clearly not a man to give up easily for, having been engaged in dredging on the Skerries bank offshore north east of Start Point entitled ‘The Coming of the Dredger’ for some time, on 1st March 1904 Sir John wrote to The Assistant Secretary of the Board of Trade expressing surprise that the revoking of his Hallsands licence included wider waters when he wrote “ I think I ought to add that until our recent correspondence it had never occurred to me that it was necessary to obtain the Consent of the Crown or anyone else for the removal of material from the Skerries”.

Sir John’s letter includes “…the undertaking which I now give: not to remove below High Water without the consent of the Crown any sand or material of any other description from the Skerries or any other place in Start Bay”.

With dredging areas off the Devon coast closed to him, Sir John was “.. forced to find an alternative source (off the Isle of Wight) for the material required to complete his dockyard contract.”

Sir John Jackson made his name building the foundations for London’s Tower Bridge and most of the Manchester Ship Canal. The contract to build the huge 114 acre Keyham extension to Devonport dockyard took ten years to complete, cost £6 million and employed some 3,400 men.

Sir John Jackson became one of the greatest civil engineering contractors of his age - an age when Britain built most of the major Infrastructure projects in the world. His most important work was at a time when Victorian and Edwardian engineers were at their most ambitious - and saw that machinery was the key to success. Jackson always had the latest equipment and as a result was one of those who led the way out of the navvy era into the modern age of bigger and better machines.

Maintenance Vs Aggregate dredging

Trailing suction maintenance dredgers pre-dated aggregate dredgers by some margin and the material they dredged would sometimes be of a quality which, in the fullness of time, would also be dredged and sold by aggregate dredgers rather than being dredged and disposed of as spoil by maintenance / capital dredgers. A case in point was when, during the 1907 Engineering Conference, it was stated that that the material removed to date from the bar of the Mersey, from the Crosby Channel and other points of the main channel by the 2383grt 1895 built ss G.B.Crow and the 2483grt 1893 built ss Brancker was 108,675,570tons.

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