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We are not aware of any booklets, published by 'Laing', though in the fullness of time, some such publications may very well emerge.

But thanks to the kindness of Dr. Ian Buxton, we can now provide a fine & extensively researched article on the history of the many 'Laing' shipyards. The article is also available here, (at pages 5 thru 11, or true pages 16 thru 22, in a 'pdf' file made available by the 'Maritime Information Association').

Dr. Buxton, image at left. is a naval architect & author. He serves as a Visiting Professor at the School of Marine Science & Technology, at Newcastle University, Newcastle, NE1 7RU, U.K. And is Vice-President of the World Ship Society.


The Laing shipyards on the Wear were some of the longest lasting, having been founded in the 1790s, not finally closing until the 1980s. There are many accounts of Laings, such as in 'Where Ships are Born' and various lists of ships they built. However on closer investigation, all these accounts contain errors, misprints and misinterpretations, many of which are carried over from account to account. So here is my interpretation, based on original records such as in Tyne & Wear Archives, and secondary accounts such as in the Corder Manuscripts (Sunderland Library) and the recently revised World Ship Society Yard List, which drew on many sources to clarify dubious points. Joe Clarke (author of “Building Ships on the North East Coast” 1997) also provided new material.

Sources of error have stemmed from misreading of the Laing Particulars Book (Tyne & Wear Archives Service 1811/33/1) started by Philip Laing about 1800, from confusing the two Philip Laings and the two James Laings, and from the existence of several yards on both the Wear and Tyne at the same time. So while this account cannot be absolutely guaranteed, I believe it is more accurate than any other previously published, based on my reasoning and sources as follows.

The first Laing shipbuilder was John (c1754-1829) who was joined by his son David (c1775-1796) and later by his (John’s) younger brother Philip (c1772-1854) at Monkwearmouth in the 1790s. John’s two other sons James and Philip joined him to build ships at South Shields in the 1800s. In 1818 (brother) Philip started building at Deptford, to be followed by his own son James.

John was apprenticed to shipbuilder J. Wright at North Sands [Corder]. He set up as a shipbuilder with his son David about 1793 (Laing’s celebrated their centenary in August 1893) also on the North Sands (North Shore). David died in May 1796 by which time five ships had been built, with ‘John and David Laing’ recorded in Customs House registers as builders [Corder]. Philip had trained as a doctor and went to sea as a surgeon (some accounts say as master, which seems an unlikely transition in a very short time) before coming ashore to help his older brother build ships. This appears to have been following David’s death, as the first ship noted as built by ‘John and Philip Laing’ is in 1797. T. Potts in his 1892 “History of Sunderland” says John Laing was building in the north-west corner of North Sands when his brother Philip joined him in ‘1793’, but this seems less likely as Philip would only have been about 21, so would hardly have had time both to train as a doctor and get some experience at sea. As his nephew David was still alive helping his father then, another Laing seems unnecessary when building only two or three ships a year. Most later sources have similar information, probably copied from Potts.

So my conclusion about the first Laing yard is:

North Shore, Sunderland


John Laing and son David

There was probably a short period when John finished off ships started by John and David, so:

North Shore, Sunderland


John Laing

Shortly afterwards John and Philip were building together, presumably as a partnership (why else would brother Philip join?). Hence:

North Shore, Sunderland


John and Philip (his younger brother) Laing

The Laing Particulars Book was kept by Philip in his own handwriting with details of the majority of ships he built or carried out major repairs. The book has been rebound and had new sections added after Philip’s death, but is clearly readable. It says that Ship No. 12 Albion was the fifth ship built by John and Philip, which confirms the partnership starting about 1797. An apprenticeship indenture of 11 Apr 1796 (in W. Richardson’s 1937 compilation of Laing history in TWAS 1811/67/4) refers to John and Philip Laing (though some writers refer to the partnership of ‘Philip and John’, an order which is surely wrong given that John was much older than his brother). There are several ships, other than these 12 (actually only 11 names listed in another hand in Philip’s book), given in Custom House registers as built by Laings in the 1790s according to Corder (who was interested both in sailing ships and in family history). This suggests that the normally accepted 1790s history of Laing ships built and their names is incomplete. Corder reports that the Laing shipyard office was burned down in 1799 with all their records, so it appears that when Philip started his Particulars Book, he was relying on memory for early vessels, several of which he was not involved in, which probably explains their omission. Philip allocates the Number 1 to the 162-ton brig Horta in 1794 but Corder also gives Affiance as built in 1794. These numbers were allocated retrospectively, in a single table in his book in another hand, unlike later ships, which get one ship per page, with Number at the top. The use of yard numbers at all was unusual for wooden shipbuilders, as there was no need to identify timber raw material contract by contract. It was only when iron ships were introduced that it became necessary to assign an identity to material ordered to size for a particular ship. The 250-ton brig Margaret of 1800 is the first vessel whose page of particulars is given a Ship Number (13) in Philip’s book.

Repair work was important for wooden shipbuilders, so John and Philip began to look for a new site. They had leased (or built?) a drydock on the north west side of Monkwearmouth Bridge by November 1804 when they invited repair business in an advertisement dated 14 Nov 1804. They also built ships at the new yard, so left North Sands in 1805. Hence:

Bridge Dock, Monkwearmouth


John and Philip Laing

The Tyne

During the Napoleonic Wars, shipbuilding and repair was booming, so at about the same time, another Laing yard was operated at South Shields (Thrift St.) with a graving dock, for both new building and repair [Amy Flagg 'Notes on the History of Shipbuilding in South Shields 1746-1946'].

Thrift St., South Shields


John Laing, Philip (his younger brother) and James (John’s son) trading as John Laing and Company

Philip started a new yard number series at No. 1 for the 158-ton brig James built at South Shields in 1805. This partnership was dissolved on 31 December 1816 as regards Philip’s share. The trade was then conducted by John and James, 'in conjunction with Philip, son of the said John Laing' [newspaper advertisement of 9 Dec 1818 reproduced by Richardson]. So now:

Thrift St., South Shields


John Laing, James and Philip (both John’s sons) trading as John Laing and Sons

This partnership was dissolved on 11 January 1822. Philip (John’s son) then undertook ship repair and some new building at a slipway at Shadwell St. (The Lawe) South Shields 1822-1832. [Flagg, confirmed by some entries in Keys’ 'Dictionary of Tyne Sailing Ships' 1998]

John [now as John Laing and Son] continued repair (and new building, as Clarke refers to fifty ships built at South Shields, and Keys includes some) at Thrift St. (graving dock), with his son James, now probably aged about 40, who seems to have taken an increasing share of the business. The yard was for sale in 1828, but not sold until 1831, by which time John had died, aged 75. The site was incorporated into Stanhope Drops (coal staith served by railway). Philip had the Shadwell St. yard for sale in 1832, although Flagg says 'now occupied by J. Laing & Co', possibly indicating some involvement with James who seems to have given up Wear shipbuilding by then. Philip had only married in 1823 and only had a daughter (as did James) [Corder]. Perhaps this was a temporary arrangement after Thrift St. sold, or not the exact name.

The Wear

John, probably with Philip (because of the continuing sequence of numbers in Philip’s Particulars Book) had also opened a (new building) yard at Southwick, as there are ships recorded as being built by Laing there in 1816. This may have been to leave Monkwearmouth Bridge Dock for repair work, rather than tie it up for new building 1816-18.

The Monkwearmouth shipbuilding partnership of John & Philip Laing (John’s younger brother) was dissolved on 12 May 1818. The shipbuilding trade ‘would be conducted by Philip alone at South Southwick’ [newspaper advertisement of 9 Dec 1818 in Richardson]. South Southwick appears to be an alternative name for Deptford, being on the south bank of the Wear opposite Southwick. Potts says that John occupied a yard at Southwick (i.e. north bank) previously tenanted by (William) Havelock. This might well be John and his son James after 1816, on the same site but separate from the John and Philip partnership. The previous (joint John and Philip) tenancy continued at Bridge Dock until 1818, probably largely for repair work. Potts suggests that the lease may have expired (1804-18 = 14 years, so a plausible period); if so, this would explain the dissolution of the partnership, rather than any disagreements between the brothers, which led to Philip setting up on his own.

Southwick, Sunderland


John and Philip Laing

Southwick, Sunderland


John and Philip Laing

John died in 1829; it appears that James closed the yard soon after completing Agenoria in 1829. Only a few ‘Laing’ ships were built at Southwick in the 1820s, (partly due to the post war slump?) but there are no details in (Philip’s) Particulars Book after 1818, which implies that there was no Philip involvement thereafter (and why should he want two yards on opposite sides of the river after getting Deptford started?). John Oliver [List of Sunderland Built Ships, in Sunderland Library, but contains errors] notes ships built by J. Laing 1825-29 in Sunderland, as well as by Philip (at Deptford). It therefore seems likely that John and James did new building there as well as at South Shields (though with the graving dock at the latter, repair was probably a better prospect than new building after the war). James’ younger brother Philip was probably not involved at Southwick, being busy at Thrift St., while their father John (now well over 60) probably left most of the work by now to his sons, with James concentrating on Southwick. After Philip set up on his own (1822), James presumably ran both Thrift St. and Southwick.

In 1818 Philip acquired Deptford House next to Howard’s yard, where he opened a new yard at:

Deptford, Sunderland


Philip Laing

He started a new yard number series again with No. 1 being the 169-ton brig Anne in 1819. Philip Laing was one of the very few wooden shipbuilders to employ yard numbers in the first half of the 19th century, as evidenced by the original entries in his Particulars Book. Such series presumably helped clarify just how many and which ships had been built under each partnership arrangement. Yet another yard number series started in 1834 with No. 1 being the 366-ton brig Derwent completed in 1835, which implies some change in status or ownership. This was probably due to Philip going into partnership with Thomas B. Simey at the end of 1834, which lasted until 1836-7, although not finally wound up until Sept 1838. (Accounts in TWAS 1811/12/4)



Laing & Simey



Philip Laing

There was also a 'Philip Laing' who built 11 ships at St. Aubin, Jersey 1834-37. Was this the same Philip, leaving his partner Simey to run Deptford? It seems a plausible explanation; the dates fit, and it would probably be mostly Philip’s accumulated capital at Deptford, so Simey’s partnership was presumably more on account of his managing the yard in Philip’s absence (Simey was later a Lloyds Register surveyor).

In January 1843, Philip (incapacitated in an accident or just reached age 70?) handed over to his only son by his second marriage, James, born 11 January 1823 (his son Christian from his first marriage appears not to have gone into shipbuilding). James' first ship is reported as Abyssinia, launched 19 January 1843, when another yard number series was started at No. 1 again.



James Laing



Sir James Laing (knighted 1897)

In 1890, all the 'Laing' built ships that the company could identify were retrospectively renumbered in one series, iron ships having just reached No. 339 (No. 1 of that series being the 479-ton Amity of 1854, while wood ships had stopped at No. 50 in 1867). The next ship (the 2057-ton Umkuzi) was allocated No. 500. The previous '499' ships were presumably identified from those in Philip’s book, and therefore omit some of the South Shields and Southwick Laing ships which Philip did not record, as well as some of the 18th century ships mentioned above. Hence it is not a complete list of all ships built by members of the Laing family.

The company was incorporated as Sir James Laing and Sons Ltd. on 3 October 1898. Sir James died on 15 January 1901. The company was reconstructed 1908-10, under the same name, following financial failure as a result of building three Lloyd Saubado ships at a loss. The name continued until 31 March 1966, when Laing’s was amalgamated with J. L. Thompson and W. Doxford as Doxford & Sunderland Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd. The Deptford yard continued to build ships under various company names, changing to Doxford & Sunderland Ltd. in 1970 and then to Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd. in 1973, until 1985 when it completed its last ship, the Mexican container-bulker No. 867 Mitla, as a subsidiary of British Shipbuilders. The Deptford site has continued to be used for steelwork fabrication, for example by Liebherr Cranes.

While the period from 1843 is reasonably well documented, the yards, names and dates before that are confusing, with a number of gaps, hence this attempt to sort out which Laing did what, where and when. The records of John and his two sons James and Philip are much poorer than those ships where Philip (John’s brother) was involved, who kept a record that is almost unique in terms of the detail recorded of early 19th century ships.

A copy of the 17-page World Ship Society Yard List for Laing’s showing both as-built and retrospective yard numbers (although incomplete for the non-Philip ships) is available from Captain John Landels, Belhelvie, 45 Abbey Road, Dalkeith, EH22 3AD, Scotland, at the standard rate of 12p per page, plus postage.

Webmaster's note:- A 'Laing' build list is on site here - a very large list indeed. Alas, I cannot tell you if it today includes every last one of the ships that they built over the centuries. The page strives however to be fully complete. Corrections to the list & additions are invited.

May I suggest that you navigate the site via the index on page 001.PRIOR PAGE / NEXT PAGE

To Thomas M. M. Hemy Data Page 41. All of the other Thomas Hemy pages, including image pages, are accessible though the index on Thomas Hemy page 05.

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