A SHIPBUILDING GENIUS
WILLIAM Pile was born in the same year as James Laing--1823. Their homes were in shipyards, their fathers were shipbuilders, their families from yeoman stock. These men were the dominating personalities of nineteenth century shipbuilding in Sunderland, and their lives in many other ways ran parallel.
There is one point of difference, however. Whereas the firm of Laing carried on in the forefront of shipbuilding after the death of the principal, the Pile yard ended with the death of William Pile.
This man, often referred to as a genius, was descended from a Rothbury farmer who came to Wearside about the year 1770, to become the first of the shipbuilding Piles.
First of the family in shipbuilding was the grandfather of William Pile, who, after serving six years' apprenticeship, was appointed manager of a yard. He taught many budding shipbuilders during the next 50 years, and it was from his grandfather that William Pile received his early training. The father of Pile, too, was a clever man, and noted for his well-modelled ships, but it was left to his son, William, to perpetuate the name in shipowning circles, and this he did in no uncertain manner.
William Pile was born at the White House, Low Southwick, a building that was pulled down 70 years ago to make way for the erection of George Clark's engine works. For many years the land surrounding the White House was the shipyard on J. Mills, but at the time of Pile's birth his grandfather was superintending the construction there of wood ships for a small company.
William and his elder brother, John, soon became intensely interested in ships, and when the family moved to Monkwearmouth, the boys occupied much of the time making models. It is said that as he grew older, William Pile walked the banks of the Wear from the first shipyard to the last, night after night, never growing tired of seeing ships in the various stages of construction.
He received little education, and his only study was the shipyard, consequently he went to work at an early age. But instead of being allowed to follow his bent, the boy was sent to John Hay's ropery. An interesting point here is that Hay's son in later years went into partnership with William Pile for a short time.
After a brief period of rope making, Pile ran away from Hay's, and very shortly after that the family moved out of the town. They soon returned, however, and at last William's dreams came true when he was sent to work in a shipyard. First he went to Thomas and John Lightfoot, in Hylton Dene, then to a builder named Wang, whose premises were situated on the site of a part of Laings present yard.
So quick was his advancement that he was appointed foreman and draughtsman at the age of 18. For a few years he remained at Deptford, then joined his father and brother who were building at Southwick on the site of Scott's bottleworks. It was here that the first improvements in modelling took place. The old-fashioned counter was abolished, and all the planking turned up at the archboard. The old-style stern-frame was done away with and the vessels framed all round. Here the first clipper stem ever seen on the Wear was produced. That was in 1845.
The following year the Piles went down to the North Sands, Monkwearmouth, where William was to remain in business until his death. The family continued together until 1848, when William took over part of the yard and commenced building on his own account. Five years later John went to Hartlepool to commence in partnership with Spence, and William took over the whole of the establishment.
Pile built wood ships until 1860, but meantime had converted his yard for the introduction of iron. He launched his first iron ship on July 9, 1861.
In 1863 he purchased the Bridge Graving Dock, which was then uncompleted, and enlarged it to make one of the finest dry docks on the river. After that Pile contracted for the altering and lengthening of a large number of ships. His business was tremendous. The yard, then the biggest on the river, was equipped with eight building slips and employed 2,000 men and boys.
When the conversion to iron took place, Pile was joined by Richard Hay, and together they extended the yard. Hay retired six years later, at a time when his partner was formulating new plans. Pile commenced to build marine engines himself, further ground being added to the yard for the purpose of building boilers.
More than a hundred wood ships were built by Pile, and a similar number in iron, but although many of the latter were steamers, it was his sailing ships that brought renown to his name. He built for Greens' famous Blackwall fleet--crack ships of their day--also for R. Kelso, a noted North Shields owner, who placed offers exclusively with Pile for 25 years. Many of these ships are now famous in shipping history. Kelso, Maitland, Undine -- these and several others were built specially for the China tea trade, where speed meant everything. Many of the tea clippers are credited with amazing runs. Their beauty of design and handsome appearance make them remembered to-day as the perfection of the shipbuilder's art. Pile maintained that a good beam and a clean run were essential in a crack tea ship, and he proved himself right in every one he built.
William Pile was always more practical than theoretical, disregarding theories and trusting to his shipyard training and wonderful judgment rather than to rule or plan.
He died in 1873--at the age of 50--and left only a good name. It is said of him that he was the greatest ship designer of his age, but no business man. Costs mattered little to Pile; his only thought was to produce a good ship regardless of profit to himself. That is why he left no fortune, and the stock had to be sold off to meet his creditors. The yard closed down, the ships on the stocks were completed by others, the site of the shipyard--once the greatest in Sunderland--was absorbed by other firms, and is to-day included in the premises of Joseph L. Thompson and Sons.
So ended a family connection with Wearside shipbuilding which had lasted for almost a century. Only the ships lived on, those lovely ships that carried the tea, and the colonial clippers which made their name in the "Roaring Forties" and carried the wool cargoes back to England. Pile lived to see the peak of perfection in sailing ship design. He had contributed in a great measure towards the establishment of Sunderland as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, and one can only imagine the heights he would have reached had he been given another 20 years in ship designing.