MENTION West Bay and people tend to think of the harbour, ice creams and perhaps fishing boats.

Not so many people associate West Bay with shipbuilding, yet West Bay, or Bridport Harbour as it was previously known, had a thriving shipbuilding industry for more than 100 years that built more than 350 vessels.

The harbour at West Bay no longer shows many visible signs of its shipbuilding past.

The shipyard on the west-side of the harbour has gone and along with it the sail loft, sawmill, ship’s smithy, carpenter’s shop, ropewalk and the tar store.

At its peak the shipyard covered an area of some 13 acres and included an acre and a half of meadow, seven acres of beach and 13 houses. The only clue today is the 1960s sea-front apartment complex bearing the name The Old Shipyard Centre.

The shipyard was initially established by Nicholas Bools. Bools had previously built ships on the beach at Burton Bradstock and had worked in one of the Royal Naval Dockyards.

In 1830, John Cox, a local man, took over the yard, he was Wesleyan Preacher and was instrumental in building the Methodist Chapel, which is now home to West Bay Discovery Centre.

Most of the workers in the shipyard lived locally in West Bay and Bridport or commuted from neighbouring villages of Burton Bradstock and Eype using the coastal footpath. The timber used to build the ships was typically oak and pine, initially this came from the Marshwood Vale and other parts of Dorset and Somerset, but increasingly timber from the Baltic and America was imported for use.

The first ship launched was the Northern Star in 1769, a sloop of 52 tons. The yard went on to construct a variety of vessels including frigates, HM Revenue cutters, schooners, brigantines, barques and fishing smacks. It had a reputation for producing sound, sturdy, fast and elegant ships and had many repeat customers. During the Napoleonic War it was said to be the most productive shipyard in England and between 1805 and 1814, 16 fighting ships were constructed. The largest, a frigate named Laurel carried 22 guns. By the 19th century there were six slipways allowing three ships to be built at once.

The largest ship ever launched was a clipper, the Speedy, at 1,002 tons and 200 foot long was launched in 1853. It remains somewhat a mystery how such a large vessel, similar in the length to Pier Terrace, was successfully launched into the harbour basin and made its way safely through the narrow harbour entrance.

The Speedy was designed to vie with the new American built ships and there was great excitement and interest when the ship reached London and heavy wagers were placed on the accomplishment of it becoming the fastest ship to reach Sydney, Australia.

The length of voyage was expected to last 70 days. In fact the first voyage took 92 days, so many would have lost their bet. The Cutty Sark, one of the last clippers to be built in 1869 which was a similar size to the Speedy, held the fastest record for 10 years.

The death knell of the shipbuilding industry at Bridport Harbour was the production of iron steam driven ships by other yards and the coming of the railways, providing an alternative means of freight transport. The last vessel built was the Lilian in 1879. After this the yard carried just repair work and by the time it finally closed many of the shipwrights had moved on to larger shipyards.

The team at West Bay Discovery Centre is inviting people take to a trip back ‘Down the Slipway’ to the time of shipbuilding in West Bay by visiting the latest pop-up exhibition to learn about the lives of the men involved in shipbuilding, the tools they might have used and the stories of some of the ships.

The exhibition is part of the Turner in Bridport programme, a series of events to celebrate JWM Turner’s painting of West Bay being at Bridport Museum for the summer.

The discovery centre is open every day except Mondays, from 11am-4pm and there is no entrance charge. The centre is also looking for extra volunteers during the busy summer period when the exhibition will be running.

For more information, visit

Thank you to the team at West Bay Discovery Centre for all the information on West Bay’s shipbuilding past.