Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online West Yorkshire
Amazon Advertisements
Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History


Knottingley's maritime history dates back many years and is due in part to the location of the town on the Aire and Calder Navigation and the plentiful supply of timber in the area. At one time only navigable as far as Knottingley, the Aire and Calder made the town the inland port of the West Riding and home to many shipbuilders, vessel owners and even master mariners. Due to the traditional rights of common land ownership along the Aire bank, local mariners and craftsmen had unlimited access to the river and could build and launch vessels at will. These riverside yards appear to have thrived in the early nineteenth century but with the opening of the Knottingley-Goole canal in 1826 the river trade fell into decline.

With the growth of the canal traffic, new shipyards were established along the canal and the skills used in these yards were the same ones acquired in the old riverside yards. One of these yards belonged to the Thompson family, the site of which now forms part of Gregg's Glassworks. Joe Thompson, together with his son Oliver and a man named Ralph Atkinson are known to have been in partnership together although at a later date the yard is recorded as belonging to Oliver Thompson and he remained the sole owner until it's demise in 1912. It appears that prior to 1860 the same yard was under the ownership of the Cliffe family who also had shipbuilding interests in Castleford.

Alongside the Thompson shipyard was one belonging to the Garlick family. Robert Garlick started in business as a ship builder in the 1840's. The business grew under the ownership of his son John until his death in 1902. John Garlick was one time chairman of Knottingley Urban District Council. The yard continued in operation until its closure in approximately 1928 due to declining trade.

Another shipyard in the area was situated adjacent to Skew Bridge on the site more commonly known as John Harker's. It was owned by the Worfolk family.  Although at one time believed to have originated from Germany in the 17th century, evidence uncovered by Peter Kettle shows the Worfolk family in existence in Whitby back in the 12th century and by the early to mid 1500's they were well established along the coast from Easington in the north to Barmston in the south and several miles inland.  There are several references to Worfolk's around the Leeds and Rothwell areas of Yorkshire in the early 1700's, having a presence in Yorkshire quite some time before their appearance in Knottingley. William Worfolk commenced ship building at Bridge Court, Knottingley and was a prominent figure in the civic affairs of the town, having diverse business interests much like his business rivals.

A postcard view of Knottingley canal from Skew Bridge

Near to Cow Lane bridge there existed a further yard known as the Commercial Dockyard. Although little is known of its early history it did pass into the hands of John Branford around 1870. At the time of his death in 1916 he owned 19 barges and a steam tug.

Most of the early Knottingley ship yards were small concerns employing just a few men and boys although in 1851 the yard of the Cliffe family is recorded as employing a total of thirty-six men.

Prior to the construction of boats at John Harker's, all vessels were constructed of timber and were all rear launched except for those at John Branford's. At his yard side launching was undertaken but this was done with winches due to the narrowness of the waterway in that area and the proximity of Cow Lane bridge.

The subject of the maritime industry in Knottingley is a fascinating one and I would urge you to check out the books listed in the bibliography if you would like a much more detailed account than what I am able to give here. I am indebted to those books for these few notes.

(i) We are grateful to Peter Kettle for information regarding the Worfolk family origins.

Click here for a larger view of the map

Map of the area around Bank Dole Junction.


John Harker Limited was registered as a business in 1918  by Mark Stainsby and John George Lyon. At that time the business consisted of simply dumb barges drawn along by the use of steam tugs. In 1877, Stainsby and Lyon had founded the Air Tar Company on land between Weeland Road and the Selby junction of the Aire and Calder Navigation near Bank Dole Lock. They dealt with the refining of crude oil which was transported by barge from Leeds and York before being sent forward to the ports of Goole and Hull for export. The manager of the Air Tar works, John Harker, dealt with the lighterage of this product by utilising a wooden barge, in the hold of which were conveyed barrels of crude oil. This system was to become the forerunner of the tanker carrying trade. John Harker also acted as a general carrier and by the time of his death in 1911 he had developed a small, thriving business. In 1913 the business was re-formed under the ownership of his son James Harker and his son-in-law James William Kipping and was eventually purchased in 1918 by Stainsby and Lyon and registered under the John Harker Ltd name. James Kipping was retained as manager of the fleet. With a fleet of seven dumb barges, towed by steam tugs, the company handled 36,000 tons of tar products in its first year.  Over the next few years, under the initiative of Kipping, the company experimented with bulk liquid carriers as at that time there was a growing demand for fuel oil especially after the coal strike of 1921. In 1925 the company commissioned it's first motor tanker from a shipyard in Thorne, an 80 ton vessel named the MICHAEL H.

1926 saw the amalgamation of several privately owned gas companies and tar distillers in the West Riding, and the tar distilling side of the Knottingley business was taken over in exchange for shares in the newly formed 'Yorkshire Tar Distillers'.  This left Stainsby and Lyon free to concentrate on the carrying business.  With the prospects good for further expansion Harker's began to look into the possibility of building their own vessels. In 1929 they purchased an area of land adjacent to Gregg's Glassworks which had once been the site of the Garlick shipbuilding yard. They began to manufacture iron hulled vessels, dispensing with the traditional wooden hulled vessels still residing in the yard from the previous owners, and in August 1929 the first tanker to be built at Knottingley, a 150 ton vessel named WILLIAM KIPPING, was launched. In the same year they also built the JOHN HARKER and the CONSTANCE H while the JOHN GEORGE was built the following year. All these vessels were launched stern first.

[above] Rebus Stone on launch day at John Harker's shipyard in Knottingley

In the 1930's with business booming, the company leased the yard next to Skew bridge which had formerly belonged to William Worfolk. This gave them the launching site for two medium or one large vessel together with a slipway for carrying out repair work. Due to the narrowness of the canal in this area the yard was designed for side launching. William Kipping died in 1936 and this led to the company being reformed as the Lyon and Lyon organisation although it retained the John Harker name for it's shipbuilding and barge business. At around this time, Harker's introduced a policy of naming their tankers after Yorkshire Dales and adding the suffix 'H'. Previous vessels had been given forenames of company officials with the 'H' suffix being added occasionally. It was also around this time that the Harker house flag began to feature on the black funnels. The first of many large tankers built at Knottingley was built in 1937 and named the DARLEYDALE H.

In 1942 Harker's purchased the land that they had previously leased from the Worfolk executors together with an additional similar sized area in order to expand their activities. This gave them the facilities for two further stern launching berths and amalgamated an area which had at one time comprised three separate ship yards. The demand for petroleum products increased and the construction of the Dales fleet continued to match it. A further slipway was constructed on the opposite side of the canal to the main yards which enabled two vessels to be raised sideways from the water for servicing.

In 1947, the company decided to build it's own offices, having previously shared accommodation at the Yorkshire Tar Works, and these were duly constructed and named Harker House. They also introduced the custom of flying the Harker House flag above the offices to indicate a vessel launching. John Harker was one of several companies engaged in the oil carrying trade and at one time could boast a fleet of over 100 tankers trading across England's waterways. Many of the Dales craft were too large for local waterways even though they had been built in Knottingley. They ranged between 100 and 800 tonnes. The company also had several coasters and sea going ships.

By 1960 the carrying trade had begun to decline and by the 1970's, a combination of rising oil prices and increasing competition from road transport led to the break up of the Harker fleet. Some were sold to canal companies for conversion to general carriers, some to rival companies and some were resigned to be scrapped.

I am sure there are many of you who can remember the school outings to Harker's ship yard in the late 1960's and early 1970's to witness the launch of one of the company's vessels.

Taken at the launch of Northdale H, January 10, 1950
Photographs submitted by Valerie Banner

wmKippingo2.jpg (53548 bytes) Waterdale H leaving Swansea message2.jpg (33777 bytes)
William Kipping Waterdale H, Swansea in 1955 Message, built 1893

Vessels built at John Harker's Knottingley Yard


Site constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright © 2000-2011 [Knottingley and Ferrybridge Online] All Rights Reserved