WOOD, CHARLES, naval architect and shipbuilder; b. 27 March 1790 in Port Glasgow, Scotland, son of John Wood, a shipbuilder, and Elizabeth Household (Cameron); he did not marry but had a daughter; d. 27 May 1847 in Port Glasgow.
Charles Wood and his older brother John served in their father’s shipyard. John Sr died shortly after laying the keel in 1811 for Henry Bell’s pioneering steamer, the Comet, and his sons took over the yard and completed the vessel. They went on to earn an excellent reputation as designers and builders of 18 Clyde passenger steamboats and other craft. Among the vessels designed by Charles were a ceremonial barge for service on the Rhine, bought by the king of Denmark, and the steamer James Watt of 1820, whose lines revolutionized the shape of steamboat hulls.
In the early 1820s Charles found backers for a bold scheme to transport timber from Quebec to London in huge raft-ships able to accommodate extra-large sticks and the tallest pine masts, which were difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary ships to handle. Wood’s vessels were to be built of square timber and serve only for one voyage, following which they would be broken up and their timber sold. Arriving at Quebec, Wood leased a large site at the westerly end of Île d’Orléans in August 1823 and set to work constructing his first vessel, the 3,690-ton Columbus; the largest merchantman previously built in the port was the 720-ton Harrison of 1811. Wood’s extensive operation helped lift the shipbuilding industry out of a depression which had lasted since the War of 1812 and, according to the Quebec Gazette, through the existing demand for other construction work on ships, the “great number” of carpenters and labourers he employed “obtained high prices.” The novel and immense project attracted considerable attention. Though it was recognized that Wood was a shipbuilder “of remarkable talents” and “intimate acquaintance with the scientific principles of the art,” some believed that the Columbus would never float. However, with 4,000 tons of cargo on board it was safely launched on 28 July 1824. The river steamboats were on hand, and the St Lawrence was alive with an estimated 100 sailing craft. A crowd of 5,000, which had begun to gather the night before, watched as the vessel slid gently into the water to the strains of “God Save the King” played by regimental bands and to salvoes of cannon fire.
The Columbus, owned by a Scottish syndicate, was manned by a captain and 90-member crew that had been sent out from Scotland. Wood was aboard as, heavily laden, it weighed anchor on 5 September and was towed by the steamboat Hercules to Bic. Under sail, it ran aground at Betsiamites, and part of the cargo had to be sacrificed to get it off. Despite some loosening of its structure by the incident and notwithstanding bad weather, the Columbus reached London in late October, to a tremendous welcome. Though Wood had designed and built it to endure only one voyage, the Columbus was ordered by its owners to New Brunswick for a second cargo five months later, and it foundered in a gale – fortunately without loss of life.
Before leaving on the Columbus, Wood had laid the keel of a similar but even larger vessel, the 5,294-ton Baron of Renfrew. Launched with some difficulty in 1825, it crossed the Atlantic safely, only to be grounded by the pilots in the mouth of the Thames and eventually to break up on the French shore. Though much of the cargo was salvaged, the two losses made such rafts uninsurable and resulted in abandonment of the scheme.
From 1834 to 1836 Wood was in partnership with George Mills under the name Mills and Wood in Bowling, Scotland, on the north bank of the Clyde. In 1836 he took over the dockyard of James Lang at Dumbarton, where his production included the ship Caledonia for the Cunard Line. An intelligent, practical man, Wood went to London during the 1830s in a successful bid to get the tonnage laws changed so that they reflected the true capacity for carrying profitable cargo.
Wood kept abreast of political developments in Lower Canada, where conflict was building to an explosion. “The French Habitans . . . ,” he wrote to Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg in 1836, “were the most unsophisticated Moral people male and female I was ever among, and very much disposed to be contented.” They should have been “most delicately attended to,” he asserted, but in fact “the British are too apt to treat them as if they were actually black.” He condemned the “mighty talkers” among the English party as “not less dangerous than M. Papineau [Louis-Joseph Papineau*] and the other French lawyers” who had mischievously excited discontent “against the energetic paternal government of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay].” Affirming that virtually no rural Canadians spoke English but that “many a time they have called out to me for it,” he believed that everyone should learn to speak it “perfectly.” The Canadians “would not then be liable to be held down by the Saucy English, nor decoyed by the Cunning French,” he argued. Since steam had made passage of the Atlantic “short and certain,” Wood concluded that “Canada should be united to Great Britain and have Peers and Members of the British Parliament.”
In the early 1840s Wood moved his shipyard to Castle Green in Dumbarton, but he was ruined by a bad contract on a vessel for the Royal Mail Company’s West Indian Line. He then went to Amsterdam to advise builders, and returned to Port Glasgow in the 1840s to spend his remaining days at the home of his brother John.
John Scott Russell, one of Britain’s foremost ship architects and engine designers of the 19th century, described Wood as “a genius in his way.” According to Russell, the change in the tonnage laws was among “the greatest benefits conferred on Britain during [Wood’s] lifetime,” and one for which shipbuilders were “in great measure, and originally,” indebted to him. Both Wood and his brother had been “distinguished by their eminent knowledge [and] . . . by the liberality with which they communicated that knowledge,” even to their immediate business rivals. From these qualities Quebec shipbuilders undoubtedly profited during Charles Wood’s presence among them.
[The author wishes to thank Mrs May Scott of Bowling, Scotland, and Mr Michael Moss, archivist at the Univ. of Glasgow, for their assistance. e.m.]
Charles Wood is the author of Ballast, published in Glasgow in 1836.
ANQ-Q, CN1-197, 4 août 1823. GRO (Edinburgh), Port Glasgow, reg. of births and baptisms, 27 March 1790. Mitchell Library (Glasgow), J. C. Osborne, “John and Charles Wood: 18th century shipbuilders” (typescript). Private arch., Mrs May Scott (Bowling, Scot.), Wood family papers. Charles Wood, “Une lettre du constructeur Wood,” BRH, 36 (1930): 543–44. Quebec Gazette, 29 July 1824. Times (London), 2 Nov. 1824, 1 June 1825. M. S. Cross, “The dark druidical groves: the lumber community and the commercial frontier in British North America, to 1854”