Before the first Furness Railway line opened in 1846, Barrow and the surrounding areas were largely farming villages. People would have used boats for a little fishing and for transportation. Arguably, the most important change in Barrow becoming a maritime power was the building of the docks. The painting below by James Fahey shows the transformation from farming village in 1846 (see detail from the painting, below) and the busy port in 1867.
Fahey painting Barrow Small wooden craft would probably have been built at various coastal locations from the earliest times. There is a reference in 1667 to Samuel Pepys, secretary at the Admiralty, having a survey made to see if the harbour at Piel could be used for building men-of-war.
But the first recorded ship, the Jane Roper, was launched in 1852 by the Ashburner brothers from their ship repair yard on Barrow Channel between Barrowhead and Hindpool (before it moved to a location very close to the Dock Museum). Their shipbuilding yard no longer exists but the Dock Museum displays the brothers' racing yacht, White Rose, on the bottom floor of the museum.
Furness Railway was the engine for Barrow's transformation in the nineteenth century. Not only did it build the railways and invest in local industries like the steel works but also took on the massive building project of creating Barrow's docks. The plan was to turn Barrow into an industrial town to rival the likes of Liverpool and Sheffield.
The capital for the docks project, originally £137,000, was raised principally from the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Buccleuch, after whom the first two docks were to be named. The railway company bought up the land around the Channel, including the whole of Barrow Island and, on the mainland side, the Ashburner shipyard. Work started in 1865, at first on what was to become the Devonshire Dock, at the northern end of the Channel. It was a massive project, taking more than two years to complete and at its height employing 2,000 men in its construction. However, the docks never repaid the expense they incurred and loan payments were a severe drain on the Furness Railway finances.
Once the docks were built it must have seemed inevitable that a shipyard would the next step.
The idea of creating a shipyard at Barrow or Barrow Island had been thought of for most of the 1860s, but no established businesses could be persuaded to the area, partly due to its HMS Powerful, Barrow isolation. Thus the first meeting of the new Barrow Iron Shipbuilding Company was held at the Furness Railway's managing director's mansion, Abbotswood in 1871.
The Barrow Iron Shipbuilding Company was neither a success nor a failure. It did a fair trade in steamships, barges and a few minor Navy vessels but the yard played no significant part in Barrow's economy. The painting right, of the shipyard by GH Andrews, was painted in 1875 but it shows an exaggerated scene with many ships on the stocks being constructed.
Things changed in the 1880s when the yard became the Naval Construction and Armaments Company and built the experimental Nordenfelt submarine, started heavy engineering and concentrated on warships. The success of warships like HMS Powerful (pictured right on the slipway prior to launch) attracted the Sheffield engineering firm of Vickers, who were looking to expand into shipbuilding. The N.C.A. Co. became Vickers-Maxim in 1897 and the way was open for Vickers to introduce a comprehensive organisation to build, engine and arm warships.