Yarrows Ways

The Yarrows Ways in Esquimalt Harbour

Yarrows Shipyard: a short history

John M. MacFarlane 2002

The passing of the Yarrows shipyard on Esquimalt harbour closed the book on a story which began more than a hundred years ago. Dramatic and sudden changes in established companies seem more and more common these days and we see that in changes at local companies, closures of major newspapers, and he financial difficulties of even the largest international companies. From humble beginnings in the trees on the shore Esquimalt harbour the company grew steadily to become one of Canada's major shipbuilders and repairers. It carried on all kinds of work and even built the furnace fuel tank now in the basement of Victoria houses.

It seems to have all started with William Fitzherbert Bullen (1857-1921) who was born near London Ontario and arrived in Victoria in 1878. He married Annie Amelia Bushby, the grand-daughter of Sir James Douglas and was for many years the Secretary - Manager of the Albion Iron Works. Unsuccessful in convincing the owners of the Albion Works to construct a marine railway he left the firm to establish the Esquimalt Marine Railway Company in 1893. Bullen's partners included his brother Harry Frederick Bullen (1867-1924) who acted as Secretary of the company, Annie Amelia Bushby Bullen (1863-1965), and her brother George Gordon Bushby (1867-?) and R.D. Dusgate (of whom no record remains). Later the company was reorganized to become the British Columbia Marine Railway Company Ltd.

The location of the old Royal Naval graving dock and, in 1927, the Government of Canada graving dock made the company strategically located as it was almost within hailing distance just across the water. Known as the "Bullen Yard", the company prospered on the work brought to them by the Admiralty. Repairs to H.M. Ships Warspite, Amphion and Flora and repairs to American vessels provided steady work for craftsmen. In those early days pay scales were modest. Between 1904 and 1912 yard workers put in a 9 hour day and worked six days a week. A first-class machinist earned $3.50 per day. Boilermakers and riveters earned $3.75 and first-class carpenters earned $5.00. A labourer in those days earned 25 cents per hour.

Yarrows Wharf

The Original Yarrows Wharf in Esquimalt Harbour

During a visit to Ottawa Mr. Bullen suffered a stroke which incapacitated him. So late in 1913 Mrs. Bullen began negotiations with Alfred Yarrow, who owned the big yard in Scotland. In January 1914 Yarrow took control of the company. A yard in Vancouver, acquired in the interval, continued on an independent basis owned by the Bullens and was sold in 1956 to Senator Stanley McKeen.

Alfred Yarrow was the head of Yarrow & Co., shipbuilders on the Clyde in Scotland. Anxious to settle the futures of his three sons he looked for a promising shipyard investment. The middle son, 22 year-old Norman, was sent in September 1913 on a scouting mission looking over shipyards and engineering works in the United States and eastern Canada with his friend E.W. Izard. By November they had reached the Pacific coast where they were joined by his father, Alfred Yarrow, and Robert Keay of Yarrow & Company. Receiving assurances that the Federal Government would build a new graving dock nearby the deal was struck.

Yarrow paid up $400,000 of the $500,000 authorized capital - $250,000 was paid to the Bullen interests and the remaining $150,000 of working capital was available to the new company, Yarrows Ltd. The majority of the shares were held by Alfred Yarrow (who was the sole director) with remaining shares to be held by Norman Yarrow. Yarrow senior gave proxies for his shares to Robert Keay who served as General manager for the next two years, resigning in 1915. This left the company under youthful management. With Keay's resignation Norman Yarrow (now aged 24) assumed control of the plant and he was appointed, by proxy, as sole director of the firm. E. W. Izard (aged 27) was appointed General Manager. By the end of World War One the Yarrows yard had grown to include a modern machine shop, a boiler shop, joiner shop, pattern shop, coppersmith and pipe shop, foundry, welding plant and a galvanizing plant. A 600 foot wharf equipped with shear legs capable of lifting 60 tons and a floating crane capable of lifting 10 tons were added features.

Norman Yarrows

Norman Yarrows standing upright in the saloon of the Prince Rupert when the ship was partially submerged at the wharf.

Running a viable shipbuilding form in Victoria has always meant being pliable and versatile. The first really big job came from Burma, of all places! It came about as a result of the fact that before World War One Alfred Yarrow had built several sternwheel steamers on the Clyde for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Ltd. for Chindwin River service in Burma. These vessels, shipped in pieces, were assembled there and put into service on the river. After the outbreak of World War One they were sent to the Tigris River as hospital ships for the military campaign in Mesopotamia. The need for river transport in Burma still existed and Norman Yarrow's first big building contract was for the five replacements - which were shipped for assembly at Rangoon in 1918. They lasted until the Second World War when they were scuttled to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

Yarrows Tortoise

Yarrows Tortoise in Esquimalt Harbour

Also during World War One the company established itself as an engineering design and fabrication plant with the manufacture of shell casings for the Imperial Munitions Board and naval gun mountings at Signal Hill. The foundry produced acid-resistant castings for chemical and explosives plants. Iron propellors and engine bedplates were fabricated for the United States Emergency Fleet Corporation. Hundreds of harpoons were fabricated for the whaling fleet. Manganese-bronze propellors and blades were fabricated for Canadian Pacific. The foundry was discontinued in 1927 due to heavy competition from other Victoria foundries. Made a baronet after World War One Sir Alfred Yarrow transferred the remaining 68.75% of the shares to Norman Yarrow who then held 100% of the shares, in 1921.

In 1925 the Wallaces in Vancouver had built their large floating drydock. By the time the giant graving dock at Esquimalt was completed in 1926 there was much competition for ship repair business. An engineering marvel, at the time of its completion, it was the second largest in the world - after the Commonwealth Dock in Boston. The dock was designed so that it could be divided into three sections by using inner gates, or caissons (built by Yarrows), so that two vessels could be docked at once. It was so large that when the RMS Queen Elizabeth was docked there in 1943 there was still 166 feet to spare. The situation of this dock so close to the Yarrows yard was critical to the future of the company. The first vessel to use the dock, the Imperial Oil tanker Reginolite, entered on September 13, 1926, long before the official opening on July 1, 1927. Yarrows claimed the honour of repairing that first ship.

Very few ships were built at Yarrows between 1921 and 1939. Nearly all the business was ship repair and engineering work. For example the CPR found that it was more economical to have their ships built in Scotland than locally even though they were designed for BC trade. One vessel, the Motor Princess, was built at Yarrows as an experiment. Captain J.W. Troup placed an order for a wooden twin-screw diesel for $240,000 in 1923. The Motor Princess was the first prototype automobile ferry and the first motorship she was owned by CPR on this coast. Five wooden seine vessels were built in 1926 but no more fishing vessels were produced until 1958.

The company was relatively unprofitable during the depression era. At the end of 1932 Mr. Yarrow moved to reduce the wages of his workers by 10%. In spite of this situation from 1921 to 1939 Yarrows repaired 528 vessels in the old and new graving docks. They repaired a further 659 on their marine railway, and a further 370 at their wharf. The expansion of the RCN in the late 1930s proved a boon to Yarrows. Four minesweepers were ordered in 1937 - one of which, H.M.C.S. Nootka, was awarded to Yarrows. Twenty-four years after establishing in Canada Yarrows landed the first contract for the type of work they had expected to carry out when the Bullen firm was purchased in 1914. One interesting job carried out before World War Two was the installation of the bells in Christ Church Cathedral in 1936. Unusual work for a shipyard the task of raising the bells and framework was completed in seven days.

A new company, Yarrows (1930) Limited came into being at the end of December 1930. This move was intended to deal with the burden of income tax being paid by the corporation and the structure was changed. The RMS Empress of Canada ran aground at Albert Head in 1929. This was the first really large ship to enter the new graving dock. World War Two brought work and changes to Yarrows. The first naval contract was received in February 1940. A second yard was established north of the new graving dock across Esquimalt Harbour from the old Yarrows yard.

Wartime freighters were constructed at the new yard. Plant expansion brought new employees to Yarrows and a controversial emergency housing scheme was initiated to cope. Temporary and low cost housing constructed to alleviate the worker's housing crisis raised concerns that Esquimalt would become a "shack town" if the scheme went ahead. The buildings were built and some are said to be still standing. Five corvettes were launched for the RCN in 1940 and 1941. Seventeen frigates for the RCN and two civilian wartime freighters were built there. Five Landing Ships were ordered in 1945 for the Royal Navy but the war ended before they were all completed. Three were delivered, one sold to Island Tug & Barge Co. and one sold for scrap.

Yarrows Riveting Crew

Yarrows Wartime Riveting Champions - 2535 rivets in one 8 hour shift.

From the founding of the yard to the start of World War Two the yard had been an "open shop." Although many of the workers belonged to unions there were no formal agreements between the company and the unions. With the rising demand for labour at the start of the War unions became more active. The right to organize was granted under the British Columbia Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. By the end of 1940 the Federal Government had frozen wages and this put an end to wage disputes. To increase production a scheme was developed to have all employees work six shifts per week and the yards to operate seven days a week. The Provincial Legislature passed the Hours of Work Act establishing the 40 hour workweek. At its peak Yarrows employed 3,500 including 450 women (who held jobs usually at that time filled by men). The yard downsized after V-J Day.

Yarrows was purchased by Burrard Dry Dock Company in the spring of 1946. Clarence and Hubert Wallace paid $1,289,282.09 and Clarence Wallace was appointed as President with his brother as Vice-President and Managing Director. In consolidating their Yarrows operations the Wallaces sold off their holdings in the No.2 Yard at Constance Cove (across from the main yard) - part of the land was leased from the Federal Government and the leases were due to expire in any case. Between 1950 and 1960 Yarrows repaired 694 vessels. The growing size of the ships in the world's tanker fleet caused the Company to solicit business for the graving dock. The industrial department took on jobs all over the province.

Ship repair continued to the end as the "bread and butter" of the Yard activity, although ships were built almost every year throughout that period. However more than 100 large steel barges were built as part of British Columbia industry. In 1969 they built the largest ever log barge. In the 1970s they were fabricating truck bodies, kitchen furniture and waster containers. The company maintained one of the last Mould Lofts on the coast and many other facilities and skills were assets used by the company to try to remain profitable. The company staff remained fiercely loyal throughout the history, with several workers able to claim second and even third generation participation as craftsmen!

In 1985 Burrard Yarrows Corporation was renamed as Versatile Pacific Shipyards Inc. part of a Vancouver-based industrial group of comapnies. The Toronto-based Shieldings Inc. bought the Company from B.C. Pacific Capital Corp. This company closed the Vancouver Burrard-Yarrows Shipyrad in 1991 and renamed the Esquimalt operation as Yarrows Ltd. Accumulating debt spelled disaster for the company in the end. Although through good management the company was profitable it could not support the overall debt. The difficult financial situation resulted in changes of ownership and several name changes - although work went on in the Esquimalt yard.

The cancellation of the $650 million Polar 8 Icebreaker project in 1990 was definitely a major blow. Ironically some of the best and biggest projects taken on by the yard, the two Super Ferries were completed at the every end of the Company's life. It also marked the peak of employment with more workers than even the World War Two period. The final liquidation of the assets of Yarrows seemed to come as an anti-climax. Although there was much coverage in the newspapers there seemed to be little will to keep the company operating. In its 101st year, the energy injected by Mr. Bullen and carried on by his successors was gone.

Now shipbuilding seems largely to be the domain of companies in the Far East where lower wages make for competitive bids on new construction. Ship repair, however, will continue to be an important function in Victoria and Esquimalt but it will be new corporate names building their own heritage in the future. The graving dock is still a major asset on the this coast - and there are still going to be ships which will need to be repaired for a long time into the future.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Yarrows Shipyard: a short history. Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Yarrows.php

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: July 8th, 2017

Databases have been updated and are now holding 50,143 vessel histories (with 4319 images) and 57,540 mariner biographies (with 3421 images).


© 2002-2017