Our Little Ship of Dunkirk

Steering wheel from a Samuel Williams tug, ‘The Duke’. The tug was one of the Dunkirk Little Ships, and was taken to Dunkirk from Ramsgate by Captain Basil Patrick Mansfield. The tug was broken up in 1952, and when Samuel Williams ceased to trade as a company Captain Mansfield was offered the wheel to keep.

The Little Ships of Dunkirk were 700 private boats that sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk in France between 26 May and 4 June 1940 as part of Operation Dynamo, helping to rescue more than 338,000 British and French soldiers who were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk during the Second World War.

In 1841, Samuel Williams became an apprentice lighterman bound to Charles Strutton of Lambeth for 7 years. At that time, the River Thames at the Pool of London was so busy that many trading ships did not berth alongside a dock but moored in the river. They unloaded their cargoes into barges, manned by lightermen who ferried the goods to the wharves. Williams met a Cornishman named Varco, who became his benefactor and provided capital for Williams to start his own business near Albert Bridge in 1855.

At this time the well-known engineer Sir John Rennie was working to convert Dagenham Breach into a wet dock when he ran out of money. The Breach was a large lake which had been formed in the 17th century by the River Thames breaking through the protective river wall and then scouring out the land.

In 1887, Samuel Williams bought some 30 acres and built a timber dock on the River Thames with a railway line connecting to the London Tilbury & Southend Railway main line.  By 1891 he had built two new jetties which formed a tidal quay and later added a barge slipway. The dock was used mainly for coal deliveries coming down the coast from North England. Williams spent years slowly filling in Dagenham Level – the marshland and lake behind his river dock – with spoil obtained from London. This was a massive undertaking with the land eventually rising from 12 feet below river level to 6 feet above it.

Samuel’s youngest son, Arthur, designed and developed steel-reinforced concrete piles for which he was given a patent in 1903. He used these for the difficult task of piling the Dagenham jetties where the banks of the Thames were marshy. The technique also allowed the reclaimed land to be developed into an industrial estate with the company leasing factory buildings to tenants. From 1929, the Ford factory was built on concrete piles on part of this estate.

Being in an important position downriver from the main London docks, Dagenham Dock was used in 1911 to fit out the last great ship built on the River Thames, the battleship Thunderer, as this was the only place where a ship of this size and draught could be berthed.  Both Samuel Williams’ tugs and colliers from its subsidiary company, John Hudson & Co, took part in the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in May 1940. One ship, the “Dagenham” survived to play a further part in the Normandy landings in June 1944 (its elderly captain insisting on participating but collapsing with exhaustion and dying a few days later).

The Company’s success had been due to the foresight of Samuel Williams. It developed as a family business which was always concerned with its employees. Houses had been built for workers in 1887, a benevolent fund established in 1898 and a social club, the Dagenham Dock Club was founded in 1949.  It was a self-sufficient business, with its own civil and mechanical engineering departments, which liked to be at the forefront of events – for example, it ran the first hydrofoil on the Thames in the 1960s.

However, business gradually deteriorated as river traffic and the docks declined, and the company was forced to close in 1985.