THE spotlight is being shone on Wearside’s rich shipbuilding heritage as part of Local History Month.
An exhibition featuring the city’s lost shipyards is on show at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, 6 Douro Terrace, from now until the end of May.
“We have collected together archive material and vintage photos for the display. It is only right our yards are remembered during Local History Month,” said member Bill Hawkins.
Sunderland was once hailed as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, with thousands of wood, iron and steel ships built on the Wear from at least 1346.
Indeed, during World War Two the yards launched 245 merchant ships – winning Royal and political praise for keeping Britain supplied with essential items such as food and fuel.
“Ships were built here for almost as long as people fished and traded out of the Wear. It was an industry which grew up on both sides of the river,” said Bill.
More than 20,000 men had work in, or connected to, the shipyards at that point - around 35 per cent of the male labour force of Sunderland.Bill Hawkins, Sunderland Antiquarian Society
“The harbour entrance at Monkwearmouth Shore, Pallion and Panns were the original, and main sites, but early shipbuilding firms could be found at South Hylton and Cox Green too.
“Many of the first ships were fishing boats, but next came the colliers of the 1700s. Each of these wooden vessels could carry around 80 tons - but larger ones could take double that.”
By the mid-17th century Wearside’s shipbuilders and boatwrights were mostly prosperous. Many owned luxurious houses, close to their yards, and often firms passed down families.
The following century saw the ground-breaking ship Lord Duncan built on the Wear - which boasted a length of 163ft (50m), a breadth of 39ft (12m) and weighed in at 925 tons.
Such was the size of the vessel that the river had to be deepened by excavation before it could set sail from Southwick Quay in 1798. Thousands gathered to watch the launch.
“Although Sunderland’s early shipyards were busy, it was the Napoleonic Wars which really laid the foundations for the town’s extraordinary rise to fame in shipbuilding,” said Bill.
“The year 1815 saw almost 90 vessels produced on the Wear and in 1816 there were 20 thriving shipyards, four dry docks, four floating docks and five boat-builders’ yards.
“Such was the extent of Sunderland’s shipbuilding prowess that commentators at the time praised the port as having ‘the highest standing of any other’ within the United Kingdom.”
The industrial revolution of the 19th century saw shipyard figures peak at 74 in the mid-1850s - and the first iron-hulled colliery was then launched in 1852.
Changes in the techniques of shipbuilding, however, saw dozens of yards close by the 1870s - as hand-crafted wooden sailing ships gradually made way for higher-tech iron vessels.
“Many of the great local names in shipbuilding folded during these decades, such as Reay, Candlish and Nicholson, as they were unable to keep up with new technologies,” said Bill.
“But other firms - such as Laings - managed successful transitions. Indeed, James Laing was among the first to move into iron and specialised in clippers, steamers and oil tankers.”
George Bartram - an orphan who was apprenticed as a ship carpenter at 11 and grew up to open his own yard at Hylton in the 1830s - also made a profitable transition to iron.
William Doxford, too, earned his place in shipbuilding history after opening a small yard at Coxgreen in 1841. He later moved to Pallion and, by 1911, his yard covered 33 acres.
“John Priestman, Short Bros, William Pile and William Pickersgill brought shipping glory to Sunderland as well and, in 1906, a total of 366,000 tons was launched,” said Bill.
“More than 20,000 men had work in, or connected to, the shipyards at that point - around 35 per cent of the male labour force of Sunderland. All that, however, was soon to change.”
Despite a constant demand for merchant shipping during World War One, the post-war years brought mass unemployment. Indeed, in 1932, just two colliers were launched by SP Austin.
But, the outbreak of World War Two saw demand soar. Sunderland build 27 per cent of all UK merchant ships during the conflict - reaching its highest production level in 1942.
“Doxfords was responsible for half-a-million tons of shipping during the conflict - 75 ships - while JL Thompson developed the prototype of the American Liberty Ship,” said Bill.
“But after the war came a series of mergers, driven by the need to modernise and fend off overseas competition, with Austin and Pickersgill among the first - joining forces in 1954.”
Other firms to merge included JL Thompson, already the owner of Crown, which joined Laing and Sunderland Shipbuilding - amalgamating with Doxfords in 1961.
Court Line then took over Doxford and Sunderland Shipbuilding in 1972, when the firm was renamed Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd - until nationalised as British Shipbuilders.
“Austin and Pickersgill was the last of the shipyards to close, in 1989, marking the end of centuries of shipbuilding on the Wear. Memories, however, live on in our photos,” said Bill.
n The shipbuilding exhibition is on show at Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday from 9.30am-12noon and on Wednesdays from 10am-noon at 6 Douro Terrace.