Sunderland ‘can lad’ who became shipbuilding boss

CAN LAD: Peter Anderson as a 16-year-old apprentice - called a can lad because fetching the tea was one of his jobs - pictured in the winding shop at Sunderland Forge and Engineering in the 1960s.
CAN LAD: Peter Anderson as a 16-year-old apprentice - called a can lad because fetching the tea was one of his jobs - pictured in the winding shop at Sunderland Forge and Engineering in the 1960s.
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TRIBUTES have been paid to the first – and last – electrical manager in Sunderland’s 650-year shipbuilding history.

Peter Anderson lost his battle with oesophageal cancer last Friday aged 66.

SEA TRIALS: A breath of fresh North Sea air during sea trials for ITM Challenger, the biggest crane ship in the world, in 1986.

SEA TRIALS: A breath of fresh North Sea air during sea trials for ITM Challenger, the biggest crane ship in the world, in 1986.

He was the last of generations of Wearsiders to work their way up from apprentice to manager; becoming the youngest boss on the River Wear at just 37.

His appointment followed plans to build the Stena Seawell on the Wear –the world’s most sophisticated offshore support vessel when launched by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Called from his section leader’s job at Sunderland Forge and Engineering to go down the road to the nearby shipyard for a mystery interview in 1983, Peter was naturally curious.

But when he asked what his new role of electrical manager would involve, he was simply told: “If it’s got a wire in it, then it’s your responsibility”.

“Shipbuilding had been about the skill of working with steel until then. The new demands of the offshore industry required a different expertise,” said his cousin, Carol Roberton.

“Peter was shown the confidential requirements for an order for a new type of vessel. He was impressed, but said later it was the steepest learning curve of his life.

“There were many complex electrical features, from computerised monitoring of machinery to high voltage supply systems.”

The Stena Seawell, first in a series of vessels with electrical propulsion, was launched in 1986. It had accommodation for 147 and was certified as a stand-by and rescue ship.

Built with saturation diving chambers, a remotely operated unmanned submarine, two diving bells, a hospital and large helicopter platform, it even boasted a conference suite.

“Her twin cranes could lift 140tons when operating in tandem, and she was equipped as an anchor-handler, with a dynamic positioning system,” said Carol, a local historian.

“By then Pallion, as well as Austin and Pickersgill, had become North East Shipbuilders Ltd. Together, the yards would become the most advanced shipbuilding outfit in the world.”

Peter went on to work on the ITM Challenger, the world’s biggest crane ship - with a jib taller than Nelson’s Column. Two barges filled with water tested its 6,000-ton crane.

The ship was built upriver and then floated down stream, under Wearmouth Bridge, to the quayside of the old North Sands yard.

The yard, formerly J.L. Thompson’s, had been mothballed in 1979 but was reactivated to build accommodation blocks for the Challenger. The ship was launched in November 1986.

Following the closure of the yard, Peter went back to Sunderland Forge as a technical manager – where he had started as an apprentice with an ambition to become a draughtsman.

“He attributed getting his technical apprenticeship to his ability to play football. He played in goal for Boldon School and South Shields Boys,” said Carol.

“The Forge, as it happened, was looking for a goalkeeper for the TLF (Thompson-Laing-Forge) team when he applied for a job there after leaving school.”

Peter started as a “can lad” in the winding shop at Sunderland Forge and Engineering at 16 – so called because fetching cans of tea was one of his jobs.

Evening classes and day release courses brought him paper qualifications and, at 21, he finally made it into the drawing office.

The Forge made everything from cargo cluster lights to winches and switch gear in the 1960s, with no sub-contracting –although this became the norm later.

In 1968, the Forge began servicing Nato generators and, in the 1970s, gradually diversified from its core business servicing shipbuilding.

“Peter worked as contract engineer on the Thames Barrier, and on projects for Korea and Taiwan when they started building ships,” said Carol.

“When the Forge was sold off to Durham Switchgear, he stayed on as technical manager until more cut-backs made his job redundant.”

Just a month later, in early 1993, Peter started work as engineering manager for Terasaki UK, based on Clydeside, with his work often taking him around the world.

In 2002 he was made responsible for a new switchboard division and manufacturing facility, developing products. Two years later he became general manager of the service division.

“He then started a direct response service for the marine industry,” said Carol.

“But he always made sure he was home for the annual reunion of his shipyard colleagues.

“Working with ships was always what he loved best, which his role at Terasaki gave him the chance to continue.”

Peter published a number of technical papers over the years, and became well-known for his presentations.

“The offer of a home-based role for Terasaki a year ago gave Peter and his wife Avril, whom he met at a church youth club in Whitburn, the chance to move back here,” said Carol. “First and foremost he was a family man. His family really was the most important thing in his life,” said Carol. “Peter will be very sadly missed by many, many people.”

l Peter leaves wife Avril, sons Barry and Simon, daughter-in-law Lucy and two grandchildren. His funeral will take place at Sunderland Crematorium tomorrow from 1.30pm. All friends and former shipyard colleagues are welcome to attend.