Stanlee Shipbreaking Yard
The Stanlee Shipbreaking & Salvage Company and their Role in 1920s Dover.
Built for the Navy to house the Channel Fleet, the Admiralty Harbour at Dover was commenced in 1898. The new Eastern Arm and reclaimed shore area became the Eastern Dockyard, finished in 1905, with a Camber tidal dock added 1908. The new Harbour was home to the Dover Patrol during the First World War and the Camber at the Eastern Arm housed submarines and motorboats. In 1918 the Admiralty added a seafront railway from the Harbour station in the Western Docks to the Camber, to carry shells and ammunition. Dover was under martial law during the war and the seafront was cut off from the town and the new railway enclosed in fences. After the war, the Admiralty used the Eastern Dockyard for ship repairs and salvage of fixtures and fittings from redundant ships The Admiralty handed the entire Harbour over to Dover Harbour Board in September 1923 but retained the Eastern Dockyard until the Spring of 1927, even though it had closed and mothballed the yard in March 1920.
After the war, most naval vessels built pre-1910 were declared redundant and the Admiralty started selling them from Spring 1919, including 22 Dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers, totalling about 500,000 tons. Existing shipbreaking companies opened new yards and new companies were started up.
From October 1919 the Admiralty advertised it was looking for tenants for the Dockyard and in December 1919 it announced that J.H. Lee and his Stanley Ship-breaking and Salvage Company of Felixstowe had won the 10-year lease. However, finalising the lease dragged on for many months as J.H. Lee insisted on use of the seafront railway. Dover Corporation, Dover Harbour Board and the South Eastern & Chatham Railway all initially objected to the Admiralty retaining the seafront railway for Lee’s use, as it had been scheduled for removal as a post-war nuisance and public danger. J.H. Lee’s promise to employ 500 locals in the new ship-breaking business quickly persuaded the Corporation and the Harbour Board to remove their objections but the SECR dragged its feet. The Admiralty too had its own misgivings on allowing use of the seafront railway unless J.H. Lee and itself could come to an arrangement about who would be responsible for removing the railway and making-good at some later date. Lee estimated that he would be moving 25,000 to 30,000 tons of materials a year by sea but only 2000 tons via the seafront railway, mostly incoming goods and equipment.
In early March 1920, the Admiralty wrote to Dover’s Town Clerk about the Dockyard:-
“Sir - (1) With reference to your letter of the 27th of February 1920, I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that they have decided to close the Naval Yard at Dover on the 31st inst. and I regret that they are unable to reconsider their decision in regard to this matter (2) I am to state, however, that a number of men will be retained for carrying out repairs to the buildings, etc. (3) I am also to state that proposals for utilising the Admiralty Harbour are now under consideration which involve the retention of the railway and that a further communication with regard to this question will be made as soon as a decision is arrived at”.
Finally, the lease was signed in late March and the Admiralty Dockyard officially closed on the 31st of that month but Stanlee had still not properly moved in and commenced business as late as May 1920. On May 5th it was announced that a recruitment team from Stanlee were in town, interviewing for jobs.
Stanlee Shipbreaking Yard, Eastern Docks, 1921
Little is known of Joseph Henry Lee; he first appears as in charge of the Stanley Ship-breaking and Salvage Co. at Felixstowe Docks in mid-1919. At the end of 1919 he was negotiating to take over the yard at Dover and also setting up another yard at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight.
On 30th March 1920, Dover Town Council was informed about the new tenants of the dockyard:-
“... the Mayor made an important announcement that the Admiralty were in negotiation for the leasing of a portion of the Dockyard at East Cliff for 10 years to a large firm of ship breakers, the Stanley Shipbreaking Company of Felixstowe, who would employ at least 500 men, and wished to make arrangements for the use of the Sea Front Railway...This firm, which was of a sound financial standing, bought up warships and broke them up, and have been doing the work for years...The company was also connected with colliery business and recently purchased certain collieries for £6 million”.
This would suggest that Lee exaggerated the bona fides of his company somewhat - Lee had only been involved in shipbreaking for months not years, and there is no evidence of any kind of investment in coal mines, let alone the colossal sum of £6 million.
Lee had begun purchasing redundant naval vessels on the 22nd of October 1919 and by the end of that year had purchased 8 surface vessels. A breaker’s yard is not named in these first purchases except for the last one, the destroyer HMS Kennett purchased on the 11th December 1919, the purchaser listed as ‘J.H. Lee of Dover’. He then purchased 7 submarines in January and February 1920, buyer listed as ‘J.H. Lee of Bembridge’. It is possible that the eight surface vessels were taken to Felixstowe and the seven submarines to Bembridge for breaking - certainly, because a man fell overboard, it is known that the destroyer HMS Brazen, purchased by Lee on 4th November 1919, was sailed from the Chatham Dockyard to Felixstowe on 12th February 1920 . It is also possible that some, if not all, of these vessels were later moved to Dover for breaking up, as J.H. Lee and the Stanley Ship-breaking Co. disappear from Felixstowe and Bembridge as soon as the Dover yard is up and running (and Lee is living at Kearsney, River). Both Felixstowe and Bembridge companies and yards completely disappear from records by 1923 and Lee’s last mention in connection with either is in 1921.
Lee set up a new company in Dover in 1920, almost the same name as his old company but a play on his surname - the Stanlee Ship-breaking and Salvage Co. Wilfrid Shervill, a well-known hotelier on Guernsey, was a major share-holder.
The first ships purchased for breaking up by the new Stanlee company were HMS Firebrand, a naval tender, on the 10th of February 1920, followed a week later by the battleships HMS Duncan and HMS Canopus, the Duncan arriving at Dover first, on 18th June 1920.
The scrap produced was sent to steelworks in North East England, Scotland and to Port Talbot in South Wales, where it was smelted in the large steelworks. Most went by cargo vessels that docked on the inside of the Eastern Arm or the outside of the Camber. Some vessels were sold on to other ship-breakers if a quick profit could be made; Stanlee had a lucrative relationship with Slough Trading who sourced scrap vessels for German yards, who paid a premium as part of the attempts to revive the German post-war economy. Other vessels were sold on for conversion to new uses - perhaps the most famous example being the minesweeper HMS Ford which the yard purchased in October 1928 and sold in 1930 to their neighbours in the Camber, the Townsend Brothers, for conversion to the pioneering car ferry SS Forde. Ironically, Stanlee let Townsends use its cranes to load cars at the Camber, little realising that the future success of the car ferries would eventually force the yard out of business.
In December 1920, J.H. Lee announced that due to a severe drop in the price of steel, employee’s wages were to be cut and working hours extended, the employees then numbering about 800.The workers had a meeting and overwhelmingly rejected Mr Lee's conditions and only 30 turned up for work the following week. Lee sent a letter to all employees saying that the works will close and be mothballed as of January 6th 1921 and that all employees were to be laid off. He said that any ex-employee would be welcome back under the new conditions he had proposed, but the yard remained mothballed until Lee was removed from his managing position and new management took over later in the year.
The new management were saved by the Board of Admiralty offering a further 1,000,000 tons of shipping for sale from 8th October 1921, on easy instalment plans to firms of good standing. Stanlee tendered for 200,000 tons and won 130,000. The firm engaged unemployed Dover members of the Royal Fleet Reserve to fetch the ships from the various navy yards where they had been mothballed.
Immediately upon losing his position at Stanlee, J.H. Lee began negotiating with Dover Harbour Board to lease the Esplanade Quay for a new ship-breaking yard, to employ 200 men. As well as leasing Esplanade Quay, he also leased company offices on Strond Street and the North Pier area (containing the old Post Office Submarine Telegraph offices and town mortuary) as a scrapyard. This left the mortuary in a fenced scrap yard, which drew constant complaints from townspeople as being ‘disgraceful’. Ironically, the Post Office Submarine Telegraph Dept. had earlier moved to the Camber in the Stanlee yard.
Lee’s first vessel, the cruiser HMS Medusa, arrived in Dover on 29th April 1922. In December 1922 he set up a new limited company, the Dover Ship-Breaking Co., offering just 100 £1 shares. Prior to this, Lee had also used the ‘General Marine Salvage Co.’ as a trading name but this was not a limited company.
This new venture went under in 1924, the yard being suddenly abandoned by Lee - his last purchase was the submarine H51 on 17th July 1924 but by the end of August both the local paper and the Coroner were complaining of the ‘debris and very bad condition’ of the defunct yard around the mortuary . His tugs and other assets were sold to Stanlee but Dover Harbour Board had to clear the mountains of scrap and tidy up the yards themselves, which was completed in July 1925. They looked for another ship-breakers to take over Lee’s lease but this never materialised. The Dover Ship-Breaking Co was voluntarily wound up in February 1926. Lee disappears from the records.
On 1st December 1921 Stanlee won a Board of Admiralty contract to break up 120,000 tonnes of the Royal Fleet Reserve. By December 1922, Stanlee was employing 700 men, a figure that would eventually reach a high of 900. They had a thriving sports club, fielding several football and cricket teams in the local leagues. A further depression in the steel trade caused the yard to shut down again for a few months on 28th February 1923, laying off all the workers, reduced by then to just 375.
In 1925 Stanlee purchased the Winter Garden wrought iron palm house at Eastwell Park near Ashford for demolition and salvage.
Yet another fall in steel prices caused Stanlee to flounder at the end of 1925 and the firm closed for good at the beginning of 1926. The two Dover shipbreaking firms had closed within 18 months of each other and made perhaps 1000 men jobless.
The Admiralty immediately began to search for new tenants and in March 1926 the dockyard lease and the assets of Stanlee were sold to Austin Orlando Hill and his younger brother Edwin Partridge Hill, born Cardiff 1900 and 1903 respectively. The Admiralty finally handed the Eastern Dockyard over to Dover Harbour Board in the spring of 1927, by which time the Hills had set up a new limited company, A. O. Hill Ltd., to negotiate a new lease with the Board.
In 1927 the company dismantled the derelict Dover Promenade Pier, which had opened in 1893, offering proper promenade facilities and summer concerts. During the First World War, the Royal Navy had taken the pier over and converted it into a landing stage.
A. O. Hill Ltd purchased all the machinery and surface buildings at the abandoned Shakespeare colliery in January 1928; the sale included electric engines, pumps, pipes, tanks, small winding engines and 150,000 bricks. This was part of the plan by owners, the Channel Steel Co. Ltd., to redevelop the colliery for mining iron ore, which never came to fruition.
In February 1929 Hills won the contract for the demolition of the Tower of St. Heliers in Jersey, a famous 120ft high observatory tower.
On 23rd November 1929, A. O. Hill Ltd, ship breakers, Admiralty Dockyard, Dover, purchased the whole of the plant, permanent way and movable effects of the Jersey South Eastern Railway.
In December 1928 the RMS Celtic, a 21,000 ton ocean liner, ran aground off Queenstown Harbour near Cork in Ireland. The salvage contract went to Petersen and Albech of Copenhagen, who sold a 50% share to Hills of Dover. They encountered difficulties from the start and it was to take 5 years to complete the salvage.
A.O. Hill Ltd was liquidated on 23rd April 1931. It had been formed in April 1927 - it had initially been a private business of Austin Hill, of 14 Park Ave., Dover, who had promoted the new limited company for £4998 in shares. He was Managing Director. In the Wall Street Crash of 1929 the company lost £3739 on an investment in 40 tons of tin and in 1928 they had taken a half share in the purchase of the wreck of RMS Celtic, which had led to a loss of £20,000. The company owed £11,301 to creditors plus £10,348 in bank loans. Its assets were £7847 plus £2353 raised from debenture holders.
Dover Industries Ltd Shipbreaking Yard, Eastern Docks circa 1950
The lease and company assets were purchased in 1931 by Austin’s younger brother, Edwin Partridge Hill, using a new limited company, Dover Industries Ltd. Some of the finance came from their old partners in the Celtic salvage fiasco, Peterson & Albech of Copenhagen. Edwin, who lived at Archers Court, Whitfield, was to be MD and remained so for the life of the company, being joined in the 1950s by his son Victor Austin Hill, who was born in Dover in 1933. Whilst supervising the salvage of the Celtic at Cork, Austin Orlando had married a local girl and he moved to Ireland where he died in Cork in 1972.
In 1933 the Southern Railway Continental and Customs Offices and Buildings, and Continental Goods Shed at the Western Docks were purchased by Dover Industries for demolition.
Little is known of the yards’ role during the war. It was a nominated scrapyard for the government’s wartime scrap drive in 1939 but Dover came under martial law again and all Harbour assets were put under control of the Admiralty. It seems likely that it was used as a naval repair yard again; after 1945 Dover Industries Ltd. added brass, bronze and copper smelting and casting, and aluminium die-casting to its advertising and it’s likely these foundry and casting facilities were added during the war - in 1939 they advertise themselves as just scrap iron and steel merchants, structural steel and general engineering. The military role of the yard may be reflected in the fact that Managing Director Edwin Hill was appointed a Sub-Lt. in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for the duration of the war.
After the war, Hills once again began breaking surplus naval ships. They also helped clear up the D-day landing sites, salvaging parts of the PLUTO pipeline, the Mulberry harbours and blockships, and also scrapped many of the coastal defence guns around the Kent coast.
The business began to shrink in size in the 1950s, and other businesses, such as Parker Pens, took over parts of the yard. In 1950 employees numbered just 76. In 1953, even more yard space was taken by the development of the Car Ferry berths.
As the Car Ferry business increased, the breakers yard became increasingly smaller. The company diversified into ship repairs and they also created a subsidiary foundry company producing brass and bronze boat fittings, the Lurline Boat Fittings Ltd. Their public weighbridge was used by many Eastern Docks users, including Banana Boats from the West Indies.
Finally, in 1964 Dover Harbour Board required the yard’s remaining land to develop a new car ferry terminal and associated passenger services. The lease was not renewed and the business closed on 31 December 1964. E.P. Hill died in London in 1976.
Shipbreaking Yard shortly before its closure in 1964, the Eastern Docks Car Ferry Terminal behind
Known ships purchased by the Dover yards were:
1919 22nd Oct HMS Garry Destroyer (1905)
1919 " HMS Ouse Destroyer (1905)
1919 4th Nov HMS Brazen Destroyer (1896) Felixstowe?
1919 " HMS Osprey Destroyer (1897)
1919 " HMS Colne Destroyer (1905)
1919 6th Nov HMS Halcyon Minesweeper (1894 Torpedo Gunboat)
1919 2nd Dec HMS Wrangler Boom Defence(1880 Gunboat)
1919 11th Dec HMS Kennet Destroyer (1903)
1920 16th Jan HMS A4 Submarine (1903) Bembridge?
1920 " HMS A6 Submarine (1904) Bembridge?
1920 " HMS A12 Submarine (1905) Bembridge
1920 2nd Feb HMS C12 Submarine (1907) Bembridge?
1920 " HMS C13 Submarine (1907) Bembridge?
1920 " HMS C19 Submarine (1909) Bembridge?
1920 " HMS C22 Submarine (1908) Bembridge?
1920 10th Feb HMS Firebrand Tender (1885 Lord Heathfield)
1920 18th Feb HMS Duncan Battleship (1901)
1920 " HMS Canopus Dreadnought (1897)
1920 25th Feb HMS Drudge Tank Vessel (1872 HMS Ready Gunboat) (converted to company tug)
1920 27th Mar HMS TB77 Torpedo Boat (1886)
1920 " HMS TB87 Torpedo Boat (1889)
1920 " HMS Ghurka HMTB101 Torpedo Boat (1892) (RIM No.7 1888)
1920 " HMS TB109 Torpedo Boat (1902)
1920 " HMS TB110 Torpedo Boat (1902)
1920 4th Jun HMS Venerable Battleship (1899) (resold to Germany 1922)
1920 " HMS Lord Nelson Battleship (1906) (resold to Germany 1921)
1920 " HMS London Minelayer (1899 Battleship) (resold to Germany 1922)
1920 18th Jun HMS Swiftsure Battleship (1903)
1920 22nd Oct HMS TB6 Torpedo Boat (1906 Destroyer HMS Gadfly)
1920 " HMS C1 Submarine (1905) (resold to Sunderland 1921)
1920 " HMS C8 Submarine (1907) (resold to Sunderland 1921)
1920 " HMS H11 Submarine (resold 1921 and lost on tow)
1920 " HMS Tay Gunboat (1876)
1920 " HMS C10 Submarine (resold to T. Young 1921)
1920 November HMS Tyne Depot Ship (1878 Mariotis) (Foundered at Sheerness on way to Dover)
1921 11th Mar HMS G14 Submarine (1917)
1921 8th Nov HMS Hibernia Battleship (1905) (resold Germany 1922)
1921 " HMS Zealandia Battleship (1904 HMS New Zealand) (resold to Germany 1921)
1921 " HMS Roxburgh Cruiser (1904) (resold to Germany 1921)
1921 " HMS Theseus Cruiser (1892) (resold to Germany)
1921 1st Dec HMS Landrail Torpedo Boat Destroyer (1914 HMS Hotspur)
1921 " HMS Lucifer Torpedo Boat Destroyer (1913 HMS Rocket)
1921 " HMS Minstrel Destroyer (1911)
1921 " HMS Morning Star Destroyer (1915)
1921 " HMS Indomitable Battlecruiser (1907) (arrived Dover 30.8.1922)
1921 " HMS Vengeance Battleship (1899) (arrived Dover 9.1.1923)
1921 " HMS Inflexible Battlecruiser (1907) (resold to Germany)
1921 " HMS Wexford Minesweeper (1919) (resold as Doomba 1922)
1921 " HMS Eglantine Sloop (1917)
1921 " HMS Ard Patrick Sloop (1918)
1921 " HMS Barnstaple Minesweeper (1919) (resold 1921 as Lady Cynthia)
1921 " HMS St Vincent Battleship (1919)
1921 " HMS P11 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1915)
1921 " HMS P24 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1915)
1921 " HMS P25 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1921 " HMS P32 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1921 " HMS P33 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1921 " HMS P34 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1921 " HMS P50 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1921 " HMS P58 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1918)
1921 " HMS Nereide Destroyer (1910)
1921 " HMS PC42 Q Ship (1917 Culloden, Mallory)
1921 " HMS PC62 Q Ship (1917 Kingsnake, Mornington)
1921 " HMS PC67 Q Ship (1917 Chintz, Flashlight)
1921 " HMS PC68 Q Ship (1917 Nakerby, Telford)
1921 " HMS Swindon Minesweeper (1918 HMS Bantry) (resold as Lady Cecilia)
1921 " HMS Convolvulus Anchusa Class Sloop (1917)
1921 " HMS Temeraire Battleship (1907)
1921 " HMS Laertes Torpedo Boat Destroyer (1919)
1921 14th Dec HMS Haldon Minesweeper (1916)
1921 29th Dec HMS Silene Sloop (1918)
1921 HMS TB80 Torpedo Boat (1887) (resold to J E Thomas)
1921 HMS TB81 Torpedo Boat (1885)
1921 HMS TB82 Torpedo Boat (1889) (resold to J E Thomas)
1921 HMS TB85 Torpedo Boat (1889) (resold to J E Thomas)
1921 HMS TB86 Torpedo Boat (1889) (resold to J E Thomas)
1921 HMS H11 Submarine (1918) (sunk on tow to Dover)
1921 HMS Natal Cruiser (1905) (sunk by explosion Cromarty Firth 1915, salvaged in situ to water level 1923)
1922 14th Jan HMS Carnation Sloop (1915)
1922 April HMS Caerleon Minesweeper (1918)
1922 " HMS H12 Submarine (1918)
1922 July HMS Belvoir Minesweeper (1917)
1922 " HMS C9 Submarine (1907)
1922 " HMS C10 Submarine (1907)
1922 " HMS Croome Minesweeper (1917)
1922 " HMS Heythrop Minesweeper (1917)
1922 " HMS Pytchley Minesweeper (1917)
1922 " HMS Hambledon Minesweeper (1917)
1922 " HMS Goodwood Minesweeper (1916)
1922 12th Dec HMS Superb Battleship (1907) (arrived Dover 19.12.1923)
1923 April HMS Victorious Battleship (1895)
1923 May HMS Lanark Minesweeper (1917)
1923 " HMPMS Lingfield Paddle Minesweeper (1916)
1924 October HMS Penelope Minelayer (1914 Light Cruiser)
1924 Fiskjo of Christiansand Windjammer Barque 1891 (Hiawatha)
1926 SS Falcon Cargo Ship (wrecked Langdon Bay and broken up in situ)
1926 HMS Glatton Monitor (1914) (sunk in Dover Harbour 1918, partly raised 16.3.1926)
A.O. Hill Ltd
1928 October HMS Ford Minesweeper (1918 HMS Fleetwood) (resold to Townsends for conversion to car ferry SS Forde)
1928 RMS Celtic (II) Trans-Atlantic Liner (1901) (Broken up in situ on rocks near Cork Harbour)
1929 2nd Jul HMS Tralee Minesweeper (1918)
Dover Industries Ltd. (E.P. Hill)
1935 HMS Bulwark Battleship (Blew up on Medway 1914, remains partially broken up 1934)
1935 24th June HMS Enchantress Admiralty Yacht (1903) (sent from Dover to Blyth for breaking 1935)
1946 HMS Codrington Destroyer (1929) (sunk by bombs Dover Harbour 1940)
1946 October SS Modlin Polish Cargo Ship (1906) (Blockship on Gold Beach Normandy 1944)
1946 9th Sep HMS Medusa Minelayer (1915 Monitor HMS M29)
1947 Jun HMS Tiara Submarine (1944)
1948 HMS Thames Queen Anti-Aircraft Paddle Steamer (1898 PS Yarmouth Belle Pleasure Steamer)
1948 14th Feb HMS Caledon Cruiser (1916)
1948 SS Tanganjika Woermann Line Steamer (1922) (bomb damaged at Wilhelmshaven 1943)
1949 TSS Biarritz Channel Steamer (1914)
1950 July Empire Flaminian Cargo Ship (1917) (Stevedore Training Ship 1947)
1950 August SS Gronland Cargo Ship (1923) (sunk Dover Harbor 1940)
1950 2nd May War Sepoy Tanker (1918) (DHB Blockship)
1950 " SS Minnie Larrinaga Tramp Steamer (1914) (DHB Blockship)
1951 SS Solent Queen Pleasure Steamer (HMS Melton 1916/Queen of Thanet 1929)
1952 PSB Lorna Doone Paddle Steamer Minesweeper
1952 HMS Ancient Naval Paddle Tug (1914)
1953 HMS Empire Longford Troop Transport (1913 Dimboola Cargo Ship)
1955 SS Ragunda Finnish Steamer (Lena 1901)
1956 31st Jan TS Hythe British Rail Cargo Ship (1925)
1957 20th May HMS Grappler Paddle Tug (1908)
Esplanade Quay Yard
J.H. Lee/Dover Ship-Breaking Co
1922 29th April HMS Medusa Cruiser (1888)
1922 25th Oct HMS Pomone Cruiser (1897)
1922 12th Dec HMS Flora Cruiser (HMS Indus II Training Ship) 1893
1923 21st Feb HMS Impregnable Training Ship (1861 HMS Black Prince Ironclad)
1923 " HMS Gannet Diving Tender (1877 HMS Trent Gunboat)
1923 May HMS P48 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1917)
1923 " HMS P52 Anti-Submarine Patrol (1916)
1923 " HMS Biter Tender (1889 Sir William Reid) (converted to company tug)
1923 " HMS Clincher (HS41) Harbour Tug (converted to company tug)
1923 " HMS Ruby (MB57) Motor Boat (converted to company tug)
1923 31st Jul HMS PC56 Q Ship (1917) (Panache, Birdwood)
1923 " HMS P75 Q Ship (1917 HMS P13 Anti-Submarine Patrol)
1924 17 Jul HMS H51 Submarine
The museum would welcome any photographs or more information on this subject. Please email : mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Text © Dover Museum with thanks to Mark Frost