THE SUNDERLAND SITE - PAGE 160
A HISTORY OF SHIPBUILDING ON THE WEAR
A PAPER BY JAMES A. MARR
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There are many written brief histories of shipbuilding in Sunderland. Many of those histories were published relatively recently & are therefore inappropriate for inclusion in these non-profit & informational pages for reasonable reasons of copyright. Unless, that is, permission for use were to be granted. Yet, despite similar concerns, I have recorded here, without permission, a paper written, I believe in the very early 1960s, & revised in the mid 1970s, by J. A. Marr. It contains some delightful anecdotes which do deserve to be wider available, & is an interesting read.
For a long time, I was unaware of who J. A. Marr is, or maybe was. But now, thanks to both Keith Atkinson & Robert Hunter, we know who J. A. Marr is. He is James A. Marr, great grandson of Sir James Marr (who served with distinction for many years at Joseph L. Thompson & Sons Ltd. & later at Sir James Laing and Sons Ltd. - data re Sir James is here) & son of Allan J. Marr, Managing Director of Sir James Laing and Sons Ltd.
Allan J. Marr's photograph can be seen (at page 170 in my copy), in 'Where Ships Are Born'
J. A. Marr (known as Jimmy), was, I am advised later also the Managing Director at Laing's of Deptford. And, what is more, at left is a modest image of him. The good looking fellow, 4th from the left & at the back, with a red tie, in the May 1988 image at left. (We thank the 'Sunderland Echo' for that image, I believe).
Can anybody identify all of the others in the photograph? Ken Hern advises (thanks Ken!) that in the back row at left is Brian Tebbut, Senior Design Draughtsman, maybe a Naval Architect. And that the tall gentleman in the back row is Alan Carr, Chief Design Draughtsman.
The next step is to find a way to contact J. (Jimmy) A. Marr, to hopefully obtain his consent for the reproduction here of his excellent paper.
The paper, which is typewritten on 15 legal sized pages, was given to the webmaster by a friend of the site, he having bought it himself at a second hand bookstore. Was it published anywhere? I just do not know. Do please consider writing to the webmaster if you can assist in contacting Mr. Marr.
While the paper is of 15 pages, I have excluded here the last three of those pages. Two of them were charts & of a quality that reproduction here would be most difficult. The final page is, I believe the map contained within 'Where Ships Are Born'. I have corrected the spelling of a few words, & for reasons of page tidiness have removed the indentation of each paragraph first line. But I have not changed any of the punctuation, not wishing to inadvertently change in any way the author's meaning.
"A HISTORY OF SHIPBUILDING ON THE WEAR"
by J. A. MARR
Although the first authentic record of shipbuilding in Sunderland comes in 1346, in the form of a charter granted by the Bishop of Durham to Thomas Menville, a Bishop Pudsey was said to have built several vessels at Sunderland and Stockton to carry troops to the Crusades. It is said that Bishop Pudsey's own ship, a great galley fitted sumptuously with a silver throne, was built on the Wear, and later the king commandeered the ship and forbade the Bishop to leave his diocese.
That story is not very well authenticated, however, unlike the charter granted to Menville which read :-
Vide Exemplum anno, 19 Ed. Three Regis 1346
Thomas Menville occupavit quaend'locum
ibidem vocat Hindon, pro aedificando
naves, et solvit proinde Episc' annual
This was not the best of moments to start a business concern, and though Thomas Menville himself is recorded some years later, as having prospered, he suffered from competition rather more severe that that faced in later years, for his rivals, i.e. the Scots, were frequently pillaging and plundering over the north of England in these years. Anyway, there is no further mention of shipbuilding in the survey made in Queen Elisabeth 1st's reign. Her commission in a report on the town in 1588 (the year of the Armada, when surely ships were in demand) was that the town was in great decay and little frequented, its only industry being shallow coal workings and salt pans.
A great boost to Sunderland shipbuilding must have come during the Civil War in the 1640's, when Sunderland was held by Parliament and ordered to supply coal to London, because the Tyne export trade was cut off as Newcastle was held by Royalists.
Later in the 1600's, local records begin to mention the trades associated with ships. In 1667 there is recorded an Adam Nicholson, Boatwright, who was probably related to Nicholsons who had a yard in 1768, on the site now occupied by S. P. Austin's Wear Dockyard. Later comes mention of Goodchilds, who started building in 1672, and closed down in 1821, when a Bank which they owned in the town went bankrupt. Later, in 1691, Thomas Burn is mentioned. At the age of 17 he took over a yard which his mother, apparently the first female shipbuilder had been running.
It must not be assumed that these were the only yards building ships, or rather boats, for few were on any size, on the river. On the contrary, wherever there was a vacant space on the river bank, a small yard would spring up. Here two brothers and their sons would build perhaps one or two collier brigs, and then fade away, for most likely financial reasons, for the work was hard and occupied all the daylight hours, while the profit made on each ship was small. it is recorded that at the beginning of the 18th century "the banks of the river were studded with small shipyards, as far as the tide flowed, exciting the wonder of strangers, when they passed at low water, as to how the builders could possibly manage to get their boats launched." Well might they wonder. There is the case of the small yard building a vessel who found, when they came to launch it, that somebody had gone and built a house in the way, so they had to launch it over the roof. Another man built a ship about a quarter of a mile from the river, and when she came to be launched, she was put on a tumbril, and dragged through the streets to the river. History does not record whether champagne was splashed on the ship or the horses. In reasonable times the small shipbuilder was easily financed, receiving nine months to pay for his timber, and a quarter of contract price on laying the keel.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, the business of shipbuilding had become the mainstay of the town. This was caused by the expansion of the coal trade to meet the demand caused by the Napoleonic War, for the ironfounders in the south needed the coal to produce the guns which were needed. Since one ship could only carry between 150 and 300 tons of coal, and if she was lucky she might make the round trip in six weeks, it can be seen that a large number of these "cats", as they were called, were needed to stoke the fires of a rapidly expanding London. During the Napoleonic Wars Wear shipbuilders were making their fortunes, and the price of a collier ran from £14 to £15 per ton: In the depression of 1880 this fell to 9 guineas.
At this time shipyards on the river extended to within three-quarters of a mile of Lambton Castle, the one adjoining the estate boundary being owned by somebody called Thomas Lancaster.
This state of affairs, many yards building many small ships, continued until the 1840s. Of course, there were bad times as well as good. In 1821, for instance, there was a slump in the foreign coal trade, and over 600 coasters were laid up in the river, with over 13,000 shipwrights and heelmen out of work. Again, in 1840 there was a very bad slump is shipbuilding, the chief competitors being the Scots. A litany was written at the time -
"Oh, that the Lord above
Would send down knives like razors,
To cut all Scotmen's throats,
Who pull down shipwright's wages.
By 1856, the number of shipyards on the river had reached its zenith, with a total of 73. From then onwards, the number began to fall, due mainly to the higher costs of material, the introduction of steam as a motive force, and the gradual turn over from wood to iron as the main hull material.
The men who had built these small wooden ships were not business men, designers or capitalists. One of them, when asked: "Who draughted her, Jack?" replied - "Wor draughted her worselves. Aa (sic) draughted one side and Bill draughted the other." With very few exceptions, the high class passenger clipper ships were not constructed here, except by yards like Pile, Laing, Canlish (sic) and Thompson, Hall and Watson and a few others, the vast bulk being colliers or small traders of 200 to 300 tons of very similar style. Indeed it was said that very many were built by the yard and stems and sterns stuck on as required. These ships were known as coffin ships. Many of these small shipbuilders were financed by enterprising timber merchants, who took possession of the ship after launching, if the builder could not find a buyer.
The first screw propelled steamship was introduced in 1845. She was called the Experiment, and was built by Adamson on the North Sands. She was built primarily as a sailing ship, and then altered by Robert Thompson into a steamer, and was lost at sea by fire. Next came the Loftus, which was built by Barkus and engined by George Clark, and after her the Amity, built in 1853 by Laings. The Amity was the rivers' first iron vessel.
This urge to build steamships was given by the Crimean War, for those owners who chartered their ships to the Government for this period made a great deal of money out of one ship and could cover its cost on one charter. One of the ships built for the Government then was called the Wearmouth, with an indicated horsepower of 70, and her figurehead was a miner complete with pick, "bait-tin", lamp and shovel.
There were steamships on the Wear, however, in 1833, 19 of them being registered that year. The largest of these was 42 gross tons with an indicated horsepower of 30. The smallest, the "Fatfield Packet", had a horsepower of 2.
From 1850 to 1870 was the transition period for the Wear. Up till 1850 all ships were of wood, from 1850 until 1870 both wooden, composite and iron ships were being built, and by 1870 almost all the yards which are in existence now, save Pickersgill's, had completed their change and were building mostly iron steamers. The last wooden vessel of any importance was the "Copenami" (Webmaster comment - means Coppename) built by Pickersgills in 1880.
Perhaps the most famous yard in those times was that of William Pile.
William Pile Senior established himself on the North Sands in the late 18th century, and he taught his grandson, again called William Pile, the art of shipbuilding as a very early age.
When he was 14, the young William was apprenticed in a ropery, but he soon tired of that, and was then apprenticed to a builder called Lightfoot in Hylton Dene, and then to a man called Wang, whose yard was where Laings is now, at Deptford. He learned quickly, and was appointed foreman and draughtsman at the age of 18. Soon he joined his father building at Southwick, and moved with him to North Sands, where they settled down to build high class sailing ships. In 1845 they produced the first clipper bow seen on the Wear, and later built several famous clippers, amongst them one for "Old White Hat" Willis, who owned the "Cutty Sark". Pile is said to have based the lines of his ships on those of the sailing cobles, and obviously believed in a form of tank testing, for he used to cut out small models of the sailing ships that he was going to build, and sail them in pools left by the tide as it went out.
He died, penniless, in 1873, and the site of his yard is now incorporated in that of J. L. Thompsons.
Piles yard did not last many years, and the oldest existing yard on the river is that of Sir James Laing & Sons, at Deptford.
In 1793, when only 22, Philip Laing, a yeoman farmer and shipowner from the Fifeshire village of Pittenweem, sailed a ship into the port of Sunderland. At that time there were about sixty shipyards on the banks of the Wear, extending as far up as Hylton. His faith in his own ability and in the expansion of seaborne trade was fully justified. He and his brother John Laing, started to build ships on the Monkwearmouth shore on a site that was between Thompsons and the ground which was occupied by John Crowns yard. The first ship they built was the Horta for a Captain Forster of Whitburn - she was about 248 tons.
Philip and John Laing were not very wealthy. They were both devout churchmen, but it was noticed that they never went to church together. If Philip went in the morning, John went at night. One day, the Priest asked John where his brother was, and it turned out that he was sitting at home in his shirt because they only possessed one pair of decent trousers between them.
In 1804 they expanded and acquired a dock near the Wearmouth Bridge, and later they went across to South Shields and owned a dock in a shipyard there, but came back to Southwick, in Sunderland, to the site which later became Robert Thompson's yard. Finally, in 1818, they crossed the river and settled at Deptford where the yard stands now, and in the same year they dissolved their partnership, John Laing leaving the yard and business to Philip Laing.
Philip then built a house which stood in the middle of what is now all shipyard. Here, in 1823, was born Philip's son James Laing, who "exercised a more powerful influence than perhaps any other man has done, on the development of Wear shipbuilding and the Port of Sunderland." His career was crowned with a knighthood in 1897, four years before he died.
Before James Laing was born his father had made local history by launching the first East Indiaman from a Sunderland yard, in 1815, and the year previous to that, the first Wear built ship to be fitted with chain cables. James Laing took charge in 1843 at the age of 20. It was he who introduced the use of teak into shipbuilding in Sunderland. He built many famous sailing ships, including the "Philip Laing", built in 1856, which carried the first party of New Zealand Emigrants who landed at Dunedin, and the "La Hogue" which was launched by Laings in 1855 and was the largest vessel ever to be built at that time in the North of England. Eleven years later, in 1866, he built the "Parramatta", the last wooden ship to be built at Deptford. During the transfer from wooden ships to iron, composite ships were built, i.e. a wooden ship with iron frames, a period in which he produced perhaps the finest of all time, "The Torrens", launched in 1875. She was as famous for her own special qualities as she was for the fact that in her sailed Joseph Conrad as mate. She had a fantastic turn of speed, and for fifteen years no ship approached her average from London to Port Adelaide. She broke the record for the run from Plymouth to Adelaide, port to port in 64 days.
Meanwhile Laings had built the first iron vessel ever launched on the Wear, the "Amity" launched in 1853. Several times Laings led the way by building the longest and largest ship on the river. In 1902 they launched the "Yamuna", 510 ft. long, and it was not until 1913 that this length was exceeded by two ships built by Doxfords, 15,600 ton tankers.
A few years after Sir James Laing's death in 1901, the firm got into financial difficulties. They lost a large sum of money converting the "Cyclops" an Admiralty ship, into a repair ship, and then made an equally big loss on a contract for building three large vessels for the Italian immigrant trade. Also, the management was not all that it might have been, for many workmen were said to be coming into the yard in the morning, collecting their board, rowing straight across the river to Robert Thompson's yard, and coming back across at night to return the board.
In 1909 Sir James Marr joined the firm, and became Chairman in 1912. He started the close association which now exists between three firms on the Wear, Laing's, Joseph L. Thompsons and the Sunderland Forge. Laings incidentally, claim to be the second oldest shipbuilders in this country. They certainly are the oldest on the Wear. Apart from shipbuilding, they used to repair and dry dock ships, and they must be amongst the earliest people to 'jumbo-ise' ships, for in 1872 the vessel "Silksworth" was bought by Sir James Laing as a wreck. She was salvaged in two halves and brought to their Dock at Deptford. She was there dry docked, her length increased by inserting forty to fifty feet of new material between the two halves. On completion she was renamed "Chancellor" and gave Laings many years of satisfactory service.
Again in 1874 they lengthened the ship the "Poonah" built by Thames Ironworks in 1862. She was sent to Laings and cut in half and lengthened by 80 ft. amidships, increasing the gross weight of the vessel by 978 tons.
If Laings is the oldest yard on the river, Crowns comes next in age, although this yard is now combined with Joseph L. Thompson & Sons.
The founder of Thompsons, Robert Thompson, was born in 1797, the son of a master mariner. As a boy he worked on the River Wear in the keels that brought down the coal from Chester-le-Street etc., until he was about 17 or 18, when he started his career as an apprentice shipwright, teaching himself draughtsmanship in the evenings, using the floor as his drawing board.
He was apprenticed to a man named Allison, on the North Sands. I'm not quite sure how much he learned from Allison, for this gentleman always had trouble launching his ships because he habitually placed the ways too far apart, with the sad result that during the launch, the vessel would slip between the two of them. However, Robert started to build on his own in 1819, and launched one or two small ships from below Lambton drops. Here he experience a different kind of launching trouble, for one of his ships was lifted off the stocks by the tide when she was only half built. At his first launch, in a moment of exhilaration, he clung to the rudder as the ship went in and was carried into the water with it. Soon afterwards he stopped shipbuilding, and went to sea as a carpenter. When re returned he built a ship at Biddick, named the "Iona". Sunderland was at this time in great competition with the Tyne, to such an extent that the Tynesiders wished to divert the Wear, by means of a canal, into the Tyne at Redheugh. Whether this move was backed by the Tyneside shipbuilders or brewers I don't know, for there has always been a saying in Sunderland "The water in the Wear is better than the beer over there."
Be that as it may, Sunderland output in 1834 was nearly equal to that of all the other ports combined.
In 1837 Robert Thompson and his three sons, who had also been apprenticed as shipwrights, started building at Washington Staithes, Robert Thompson Junior taking over the management in 1839. In 1840 they became a partnership known as Robert Thompson & Sons, but as a firm they only had a brief existence, due to a serious depression, and all the sons took up positions as foremen in other yards. This did not last long, and by 1846 Robert Thompson & Sons established themselves on the site which they occupy now.
In the years between 1839 and 1846, Robert Thompson the Elder has been teaching the other shipbuilders, his sons, how to draught and lay out ships in the loft, again presumably on the kitchen floor. As partners in the firm they did not make a great deal of money, Robert Thompson senior got about 30/- per week, while the others got 27/- and 24/- each. The firm itself numbered only eight in all.
The first ship that they built at North Sands was the brig "Pearl", a favourable contract on which they made £300. Between 1846 and 1860 they built and launched successfully 77 ships of varying dimensions and tonnages. Their largest wooden ship, the "Hellvellyn" was built in 1865. She was 189 ft. long and 1,017 tons gross. Shortly after this, Robert Thompson Junior quarrelled with his father and left to build ships on his own, leaving his brother, J. L. Thompson, to work with his father.
In 1871 Joseph L. Thompson, as they are now known, built their first iron ship. She was a steamer 225 feet long, gross tonnage 1,091. The conditions under which she was built were still very primitive. The vessel was laid off in the attic of a house in Dock Street East, the top floor of a public house, the Easthouse Inn, being used as a Drawing Office. By 1880 the firm had possession of the entire North Sands, where seven shipyards had previously existed, and in 1884 they launched their one hundredth iron ship. Incidentally, they built in 1881 a ship called the "Lancashire Witch", 225 feet long, with a speed of 20 knots, which was completed in 18 weeks.
In 1894 Joseph L. Thompson became a Limited Liability Company. By this time the yard had passed through three distinct stages: from 1846 to 1870 ships were built of wood; from 1870 to 1886 ships were built of iron; and it was during this period that James Marr joined the firm. In 1886 steel was first introduced, and used entirely from then onwards.
During the First World war North Sands built standard type cargo vessels and special Admiralty craft. As in the Second world war, they also devised their own special cargo vessel, which was eventually adopted by the Government as a standard F type ship. After the end of the war, as in many firms on the Wear, the labour position had become difficult, and in 1920 it is interesting to note that two ships which had been launched almost complete were diverted one to Rotterdam and one to Hull to have the joinerwork finished, owing to a joiners strike. For the first time in the firm's history, in 1922, there was no launch at North Sands. This was due to the severe depression that occurred in the industry. the following year work proceeded again, but later, in 1931, 1932, 1933 and 1934, no launches took place.
In 1932 Sir James Marr, by then Chairman of the Company, died. At the age of 14 he had started his career in shipbuilding under Messrs. Oswald & Co. of Pallion. When Oswalds went to Southampton, he went with them and remained in Southampton until he came back to work for Thompsons at North Sands in the year 1876. In 1882 he was made General Manager and in 1901 he became Managing Director and later Chairman.
In 1938 North Sands launched their biggest ship up to that date. this was the "Sandanger", of 14,500 tons deadweight.
In the Second World War British shipbuilders were allowed to evolve their own standard ships, and Thompsons evolved a ship which was known as Empire Liberty. She was adapted to suit welded construction and with her hull as a basis, over 2,710 Liberty Ships (Webmaster note - U.S.A. postage stamps re Liberty Ships) were built by the U.S. Government between 1942 and 1945.
In 1946 they took over the yard of John Crown and Sons, which was next door to them, to enable them to expand and build bigger ships.
John Crowns was itself a very old established yard. They were first registered as Crone, and had their first launch in 1807, and by 1814 they were building ships of about 400 tons, which was big for those days. The founder of the firm was Luke Crone, who served his time up the river at a yard called Rudd, where a ship fell over as it was being built, killing several workmen. Luke ran the yard until 1854 and died at the age of 77 when his grandson Jackie Crone took over. All the Crones must have been great characters and were well-known as 'rough diamonds' on the river.
Luke Crone always wore a blue serge suit and would wear no other. He had them made from time to time by a tailor. He would go into the tailor's shop, order a new suit, and then walk away expecting it to be delivered to fit him. This went on for many years although his figure had altered considerably since the time he was first measured. This is perhaps the reason why, if anyone wanted to see him in the yard, they would find him with his coat off, helping the workmen.
Until 1873 the Crones had been building at Monkwearmouth, but in 1873 Jackie Crown built himself a large ship on which he lost a great deal of money, and so started to manage the Strand Slipway for James Laing, and took it over in 1877.
I have not yet dealt with any of the unusual types of ship which have been built on the river. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Doxford 'turret' ship.
Doxfords was established in 1840 by William Doxford, who started a small wooden yard at Cox Green, where they built ordinary collier brigs. By the 1850's it was obvious that the day of the wooden ship was gone and that the iron hull and propeller were going to replace it. So, William Doxford left Cox Green and started a shipbuilding yard at Pallion in 1857, somewhat to the west of the site where they are now, which was bought in 1869. Here they laid down five berths, and built a considerable number of iron cargo ships. Here Theodore and Alfred Doxford joined their father, and later in 1880 the two younger sons Robert and Charles joined the firm.
In 1891 the partnership became a private limited company, and the yard was capable of producing about 28,000 tons a year on the five slips. Shortly afterwards they converted these five slips into three of larger size to take vessels up to 12,000 tons deadweight and their tonnage produced rose to 43,000 tons in 1902. These ships were almost entirely 'turret' ships, and in 1901 to meet the extra demand due to the popularity of this particular type of vessel, land around the yard was acquired and three extra slips laid down, so that by 1904, six berths were in operation, and by 1906 they produced 106,000 tons, all in 'turret' ships. This meant that they were launching a ship every fortnight.
The first 'turret' was produced in 1892, and by 1906 they had produced 175 of them. When the first of this type was launched, many were doubtful that they would prove the success that they did, and in 1893 an opinion was expressed "that such a vessel could never remain upright after a third wave on her broadside, even if she did not succumb to the second."
The secret of the 'turret' was lightness combined with strength. This was partially achieved by the flanging of the bulkhead plates to provide stiffening. The 'turret' gave longitudinal strength to the hull and left the hold clear. By this method of construction the builders claimed that 58 cu. ft. per ton under hatches was secured as opposed to between 52 and 54 cu. ft. in the old type of steamer. Thus, she could carry more cargo on a given displacement. Other advantages were that cargo could be loaded in bulk and that low canal dues were payable owing to the tonnage regulations that were in force at the time. Also they had double the freeboard of the conventional steamer.
Another interesting type they built was the whaleback steamer, the first of which was called the "Sagamore", in 1893. Whereas the 'turret' ship, in theory anyway, behaved at sea like any other steamer, the whaleback type was built so that she could spend her time either on top of, or washed over by the waves. She spent most of her time at sea semi-submerged, hence the whale form. She could not, however, blow like a whale, even if she swam like one, and it was perhaps this omission which doomed her to failure.
Doxfords established their engineworks in 1878. This engineworks was run by Robert Doxford, who had been trained at North Eastern Marine.
This paper is not the place to discuss the merits of the Doxford engine, which was produced in 1919. The first went into a ship named the "Yngaren", a 9,000 ton motorship with a b.h.p. of 2,600. The engine was developed by the late Mr. K. C. Keller, and has proved perhaps one of the most successful diesel engines ever produced.
Utilizing this engine, and those developed from it, Doxfords have produced a series of standard economy ships, the first coming during the slump of the '30s, and having a deadweight of about 8,500 tons, doing a speed of 9.5 knots on about 6 tons of bunker a day. This ship was such a success, that in spite of the depressed freight markets, they received almost immediately orders for ten more vessels.
Doxfords altered their shipyard after the '39-'45 war, demolishing three of the berths, leaving three in the east yard. It is interesting to note that is spite of the reduced number of berths, they produced almost the same tonnage during and after the alterations, as they had before them.
After talking about the 'turret' ships, perhaps I should now mention the Monitor ships. These ships were built up river at North Hylton, by the firm of Osbourne, Graham & Co., who started iron shipbuilding in 1871. Because of the size of the river they were unable to build ships of any great size, but nevertheless they produced some fine sailing ships, and by the turn of the century, had a reputation for building fine coasters.
In 1909 they laid the keel of the "Monitor". She had a hull of revolutionary design, with two bulges below the water line. These bulges were supposed to give many advantages. They gave the ship increased longitudinal strength, thus allowing a reduction in scantlings, increased cargo capacity, reduced rolling (the bulges acted like large bilge keels), and, strangely enough, increased speed. The hull form was evolved from models run by A. H. Haver in a tank near the town hall. It was in this tank that the models of the first "Mauritania" were run. In spite of all these apparent advantages, not many of this type of ship were built. The firm of Osbourne, Graham was closed down in 1926, as a result of the depression.
Osbourne, Grahams built up river at Hylton. The most inland yard now existing is that of Short Brothers.
George Short, the founder of Short Brothers, started his apprenticeship in 1830 with James Johnson, a shipbuilder of Bishopwearmouth. He became a foreman shipwright in 1840 at the yard of James John Watson of Pallion. It was at this yard that the Watsons, during the great depression in the shipbuilding trade, built a ship for Greenwells, on which every shipwright employed was a master shipbuilder in his own right, many of them owners of their own shipyards at one time. Soon afterwards George Short left Watsons, and went into partnership with Joseph Simpson, a shipwright and friend of his. They built one or two vessels and then the partnership broke up, and in 1851 George Short moved to Claxheugh, to a place known as Mowbray Quay.
George Short died in 1863, aged 49. At the time of his death the yard was bounded on the east side by that of Oswald, and on the west side by that of Robson & Partner. Shorts eventually took over the yard of Oswald, and that is the site of the present yard.
About the year 1871, they built their first iron ship. Her engines were built by Hawthorn Leslie, and developed 100 b.h.p., costing £4,300, about 50% of the total cost of the vessel, which was £9,150. At the same time the entire furnishing of the vessel cost £18.
John Young Short, the second son of George Short, the founder of the firm, joined it in 1865 at the age of 21. He soon became the guiding hand in the firms affairs, and when it moved to Mowbray Quay in 1870 he was in charge of it. He became a well-known shipbuilder, and was credited with several outstanding new ship designs in the 1870's. In 1877 the firm was one of the first in the country to build ships of a greater beam than was customary, in order to secure a greater stability and sea-worthiness.
The firm always specialised in cargo ships, and they built several well-known ones at the time, for instance the "Cordova", which was launched at Pallion. She was known as the Chocolate Steamer, and also went under the name of the "Diving Belle" and was signalled passing Flamborough as two masts and a funnel, in bad weather.
Shorts was the first year in the country to introduce the new experiment of an eight hour day. This was in 1891. Shorts maintained that an eight hour day gave them much more work out of the employees that the previous nine hour day. They considered that owing to the conditions under which the old system worked, many workmen were physically incapable of maintaining the long hours, as the men started at 6 o'clock in the morning and stopped at 8 o'clock for a half hour for breakfast, had another interval of an hour at noon and the day's work finished at 5 o'clock. Under the new system, the men started after breakfast, at 7.30 a.m. and went on with only one break until 5.0 p.m.
The years 1899 to 1905 were ones of considerable expansion for the firm. In 1899 they took over the North of England Shipbuilding Company's yard to give them greater quay facilities, and in 1900 they extended to the south - a move which involved the demolition of Pallion Hall, where Joseph Edison Swan, the inventor of the electric incandescent light bulb was born.
In 1918 they broke their record for the amount of ships ever to be produced in a year, when they launched 34,867 gross tons. They built one standard warship, a war seagull in 23 weeks, which included some holidays for the Armistice. This was a record for England and Scotland for a steamer of this size. She was launched in practically total darkness, at 7.30 in the morning.
During the '20s they specialised in cargo ships, and produced several of the new monitor system, and later they built the first ship to Sir Joseph Isherwood's arc-form design. This was the "Arc Wear", and was one of the most economical vessels there has ever been. She ran on 14 to 16 tons of coal a day.
In the Second World war Shorts nearly doubled their first war output, and as well as building 27 merchant ships they produced landing craft for the Normandy invasion. Shorts went into voluntary liquidation in 1963.
Immediately across the river from Shorts is the Southwick yard of Austin & Pickersgill. There is some doubt as to when the Pickersgills started to build ships, but they were certainly building in the North Dock in about 1838, where there was a partnership of Pickersgill and Miller, who transferred to Southwick in 1851, where Pickersgills have remained ever since. Here at Southwick Pickersgill and Miller took two other partners, Rawson and Watson, but Rawson and Watson soon became a firm on their own, but still continued to build ships at Southwick. On one occasion they built two ships on the same berth, and when the day came for the launch, men lined both sides of the ways to throw buckets of water on to the ship as she went down, to stop any fires being caused by friction. Even for this size of ship, of about 400 tons, launching up at Southwick was a difficult matter, and on at least one occasion a ship went down the ways with a bowsprit fitted and caused some sensation when she shot straight across the river and poked the bowsprit through the window of a house on the opposite side.
Southwick at this time had many small yards, amongst them being that of Davison and Stokoe, and also Gulstone whose yard became that of John Priestman. Gulstone made an awkward start in ship building, when his first ship, the "Lady Eleanor" (1 & 2) stuck in the mud as she was being launched, and navvies had to be hired from the railway company to dig her out.
Pickersgill soon broke his partnership with Miller and continued to build wooden ships on his own. His was the last firm to build wooden ships on the Wear - they launched their last in 1880. It was in this year that William Pickersgill died, killed while on board a ship that he was building, by an iron stay which dropped on his head. During the later part of his life the yard had considerable trouble - some ships were lost on their first voyage. A Board of Trade Enquiry was held showing this to be due to faulty construction, and records show that he was expelled from the local church as a result.
It was just after his father died that William Pickersgill Junior joined the firm, and stayed with it until 1954, a record of over 60 years of shipbuilding.
In 1893 Pickersgills launched the last sailing ship on the Wear, before turning over to building steamers. Pickersgills have always had a reputation for turning our first class steelwork, the main reason for this being that William Pickersgill had served his time as a riveter, and was not above taking off his coat and helping the men in the yard.
In 1943 Pickersgills took over the west Southwick yard which had belonged to Sir John Priestman. Priestman had worked for Pickersgills until 1883, when he set up 'on his own. Amongst the ships that he built was the "Sandyford", later the "Q5", one of the innocent looking merchant men used to trap U-boats in the First World War. His yard was not always successful, and during the depressions he would play tennis in the shipyard with his yard manager, who always had to be tactful enough to let him win. His yard was one of the victims of the slump in the '30s.
Later, in 1954, Pickersgills was amalgamated with S. P. Austins, and with Bartrams, in the South Docks, and are busy building the Wears latest series of Standard ships, the S. D. 14, of which over 60 have been built.
Peter Austin, the founder of the firm of Austins was born in 1770. He started shipbuilding in 1826 and his first registered launch was in 1831, a brig. This was on ground called Nova Scotia, near Dame Dolly's rock.
He moved in 1833 to North Sands, and took over Allisons yard, and in 1846 moved to the site of an old bottle works which had gone bankrupt, and there they still remain.
In 1869 they built their last wooden ship, "The Choice", and the yard changed over to iron shipbuilding. In 1870 they opened their graving dock which stood until a year ago. In 1874 they started a branch yard with G. B. Hunter, who later went across to the Tyne to start Swan Hunter's yard. In 1903 they built the pontoon which is still in use for carrying out repair work.
Austins have always specialised in building colliers and coasters, the demand for which has been falling off in recent years, so that now Austins are building a luxury yacht, the first, they hope, of many to come.
The remaining existing yard is that of Bartram & Sons. In 1811 George Bartram, who was an orphan, started his apprenticeship at the age of eleven with Gales. He stayed with him for seven years before going to sea as a ship's carpenter. On his return he worked at several yards on the river until 1838 when he laid the keel of his first ship, in conjunction with a man named John Lister. This ship of 16 keels took six months to build and he made a profit of £77 on it. Bartram launched about 40 ships over a period of 16 years in partnership with Lister, the yard being up the river at Hylton.
Bartrams, too, had their launching problems, one of the difficulties being that the river at Hylton was inclined to ice up in winter.
In 1854 the partnership was dissolved, and George Bartram continued to build ships at Hylton with his son Robert Bartram, retiring in 1871 when the business was moved to the South Docks, where Robert Bartram went into partnership with George Haswell, who stayed with the firm until 1890, when Robert Bartram's two sons joined the firm.
Bartrams, who launch their ships not into the Wear, but straight into the North Sea, are now merged with Pickersgills.
I am afraid that I have been rather brief in my treatment of Bartrams yard, but I was unable to unearth anything unconventional in their history, unlike all the other yards on the river.
I have been limited by space to giving a brief history of the yards which still flourish on the banks of the river. There have been, until comparatively recent years, several other yards. The Egis yard, for instance, started in the boom after the First World War by four famous names in shipping - Sir John Ellerman, Sir William Gray, Lord Inchcape and Mr. F. C. Strick.
The yard was managed by Grays of Hartlepool, but it was never very successful, and thought it survived the slump of the '30s, it was dismantled in 1938.
There was Oswalds yard, run by the Iron Man of Hylton, Thomas Oswald, who went bankrupt on three separate occasions, before finally moving to Southampton, and thence to Milford Haven. Blumers yard too, which launched into the North Dock, built many fine steamers. His yard was closed in the slump.
Before I finish, I must say a word about the inter-war period on the Wear. It was this period of depression that finally whittled the numbers of shipyards on the river down to the level that they are at now. Immediately after the First World War, there was a great boom in the shipbuilding trades, a boom which lasted until the latter half of 1920, when the demand for ships began to fall off, while the height to which costs had risen made the price of new building prohibitive. A glance at the wages chart at the back of the paper will show the extent of the rise in wages which came as an aftermath of the war. This, coupled with the strike which came as the employers tried to reduce wages to an extent that would make their costs competitive, caused a period of deep depression on the river. In June 1922 only 23% of the 52 berths on the river were occupied, while on another 16% there were vessels on which work had either been cancelled or suspended. In 1923 came the boilermakers lockout, which lasted for 29 weeks. In 1923 five yards had no launches. The boilermakers strike had held up work in all the others. John Hill, leader of the boilermakers made a dramatic speech in which he said that, since capitalists always took their money to countries where there was full employment, and since there was to his knowledge full employment only in Russia and in hell, and since there were no capitalists in Russia, he hoped that they were enjoying their stay in the other place.
The depression became worse in 1925 and 1926. During this time three shipyards died away, Blumers, Osbourne Grahams and the Sunderland Shipbuilding Company.
Output rose in 1927, and Swan Hunters reopened a yard that they had established in Southwick, while all the other yards had work. This rise of employment continued during 1928 and 1929, but when the 1930's dawned, the sun rose on the worst depression ever known in the shipbuilding industry on the river. There were only three ships under construction on the river in 1931. A glance at the output figures at the back of the paper will show the sad story. Many yards were closed from 1930 to 1934, and grass grew to shoulder height on the once busy berths. In 1930 the National Shipbuilders Security Ltd. was formed, by the shipbuilders to buy up those shipyards which were considered redundant and whose owners were content to give up the struggle to find employment. In three years throughout the country this concern had bought up and scrapped 116 berths out of a total of 684 in the U.K., while another 43 had faded away. The total shipbuilding capacity of the country was reduced by 23%. Thus between 1925 and 1933, 7 yards disappeared from the river, leaving 7. It was not until 1935 that, under the Government's "scrap and build" scheme, the industry began to pick up. The depression served only one useful purpose. While the yards were closed, the managements were spending their time on research, with the result that by the beginning of the War, new hull forms of more economical and modern design appeared, while many other forms of shipbuilding practice had become more up to date.
Throughout this paper I have tried to show how shipyards have developed. Starting from small one man concerns, the yards became more permanent, needing more and more capital to operate efficiently, so that the numbers fell, the weakest falling out, leaving behind only those with the money and equipment needed to meet the competition which has grown up from overseas. From a total of 73 yards one hundred years ago, only five remain, and these yards are operated by two companies. When Lord Geddes, in 1964, advised British yards to nationalize, he probably little realised how much rationalization economic forces had already brought about. The principle reason for this has been the high capital cost of the ship itself, placing a huge burden of financing on the shipbuilding Company, putting this beyond the private individual, coupled of course with the high cost of capital equipment now required.
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