In the 18th and 19th centuries, Rotherhithe was a place on the Thames were ships were broken up.
Ship breaking was an essential part of the lifecycle of a ship. Many warships were sold by the navy to private companies for breaking up when their useful life was considered to be over. This was a mutually beneficial partnership, in which the navy was able to dispose of its unwanted ships for a fairly substantial sum of money, and private enterprises could break the ships and sell off the component parts for a profit.
One of the most famous ships to be broken up at Rotherhithe was the HMS Temeraire.
A ship that fought during the Napoleonic Wars and particularly at the Battle of Trafalgar where she became well known for her actions in the battle. The ship was immortalised in the painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by the artist JMW Turner, which is on display in the National Gallery. The painting shows the ship being pulled by a steam tug to Rotherhithe to be broken up in 1838.
John Beatson paid £5,530 (£243,000 in today’s money) for the HMS Temeraire and broke it up at his wharf at Rotherhithe. Breaking a ship was labour-intensive work, and often difficult. Long lengths of wood were particularly valuable, and the main source of profit, but all wooden and metal fittings were removed and sold off, including old rope that had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer usable, and was sold for the making of fenders or the fabrication of oakum from the dismembered threads (which was tarred and used to plug gaps in ship decks). The saying today ‘money for old rope’ comes from this.
Wood from the ship was sold to house builders and was used to make various architectural features and furnishings in nearby St Mary’s Church. Some wood was also purchased by companies making furniture.
At low tide today, you can see many ships timbers (not from the Temeraire unfortunately) on the foreshore at Rotherhithe broken up in the 19th century. Also, if you venture onto the foreshore, its covered in ships nails, pulled out from ships timbers as they were dismantled.