Walter Taylor

Southampton’s Walter Taylor (1734–1803) famously supplied wooden rigging blocks to the Royal Navy, greatly improving their quality via a series of technological innovations. His work has been noted as a significant step forward in the Industrial Revolution, and as a major aid in Nelson’s sea victories during the Napoleonic Wars.

Taylor had served as an apprentice to a block maker in Southampton from the age of 19. His father (also named Walter) had previously served at sea and had observed the problems caused by traditional hand-carved blocks, which would often jam during the heat of battle.

On acquiring the blockmaking business based close to the Westgate in Southampton (and where a plaque now remembers the site), Taylor and his father developed machinery to mass-produce rigging blocks to an exact standard – he also offered a ‘guarantee’ to replace any that failed. One of Taylor’s inventions important in the block-making process was the circular saw – so much noise was made that locals thought Taylor might be in league with the devil, torturing poor souls.

Taylor eventually outgrew the Westgate site, and in 1781 moved to Woodmill, Swaythling, Southampton where there was a better supply of water and room to power some of the equipment by steam engines. Taylor was sole supplier of blocks to the Royal Navy from 1759, supplying some 100,000 blocks a year until his death in 1803, whereupon he was interred at South Stoneham Church. His business was succeeded by the more advanced machinery being developed by competitor Marc Isambard Brunel.