WANTED: Sunderland’s shipbuilding heroes

YARD LIFE: The plating squad at JL Thompson's.

YARD LIFE: The plating squad at JL Thompson's.

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AN appeal has been launched to make a memorial to Sunderland’s rich shipbuilding history picture perfect.

Artwork celebrating Wearside’s industrial heritage has been designed by sculptor Stephen Broadbent as part of a new £11.8million square near St Mary’s Way.

But the help of Echo readers is now needed before the finishing touches can be made to his 3.5metre Propellers of the City glass sculpture.

“We want to include hundreds of photographs of shipyard workers on the artwork,” said Janette Hilton, project director of Living History North East.

“These men and women will stand as representatives of everyone who made their contribution over the centuries to the industry that put Sunderland on the map.

“If you have any pictures of Sunderland’s shipbuilders please get in contact. You never know, your grandfather’s face could be looking out over City Square.”

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 the Second World War the yards launched 245 merchant ships – winning Royal and political praise for keeping Britain supplied with essential items. But competition from overseas saw orders for Wear-built ships start to tumble in the post-war era. The last yard in Sunderland closed on December 7, 1988.

“The story of Wear shipbuilding has remained untold since then, and the staggering achievements of thousands of people have gone unrecognised too,” said Janette.

“But the story of these ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things has not been forgotten. The time has come to tell it with pride in the city’s new square.

“The artwork will commemorate shipbuilding professions from welder to draughtsman to riveter to secretary – all those involved. But we need their photos first.”

Work on the realignment of St Mary’s Way began in May 2013, with the creation of the multi-million-pound new public square expected to follow later this year.

Water features, decorative street furniture and space for cafe culture-style entertainment are all planned – aimed at breathing new life into the city centre.

But the focus of the square will be two artworks – Propellers of the City plus another shipbuilding-inspired creation known as The Keel Line.

“As this will be Sunderland’s central public space, it will commemorate the shipbuilding industry that played such a central role in the city’s growth,” said Janette.

“It will be laid out to suggest a ship pointing from the square to the river. That distance of 291m is the length of the biggest ship built on the Wear – Naess Crusader.

“A strip of granite will be laid along this length to represent a keel line laid in a shipyard, inscribed with a roll call of ships built on the Wear down the years.

“Where the line meets the river there will be a viewing area designed to suggest the prow of a ship.

“The other end of the line will feature the Propellers artwork.”

Councillors hope the new square will act as a meeting place for public events and gatherings once completed, helping to turn the St Mary’s Way site into a hub of activity.

It is also hoped the project will be the first step towards the eventual transformation of the neighbouring Vaux site, which has been standing empty for over a decade.

“The Keel Line and Propellers of the City are significant works for Sunderland,” said Councillor Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council, after unveiling the scheme.

“We want people to become involved, supplying photos of relatives who worked in the shipyards and sharing their thoughts on the many ships that sailed from Sunderland.”

Images provided for the artwork will also be used in the development of a Keel Line website, documenting the names of almost 20,000 shipyard workers of the past.

Wearsiders will be encouraged to share their shipyard photos and memories on the site, and vintage images of the Wear and its many yards will also be featured.

“This is an amazing opportunity for the city to publicly recognise the history and legacy of shipbuilding on the Wear,” added Janette.

“Shipbuilding is the town’s DNA. We should be proud of that and celebrate the rich cultural heritage that is part of the River Wear and the men who worked alongside it.”

•People can email their shipyard photos to info@lhne.co.uk or take them to Living History North East, at the Donnison School in Church Walk, from 12p-4pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Volunteers from Living History will also visit The Bridges on May 16 and May 17, from 10am-3pm, where they will be scanning photos for the project. All donations very welcome.

The highs and lows in Sunderland’s rich history of shipbuilding

THE first official record for shipbuilding in Sunderland – the industry which came to define the town – dates to 1346 and by 1700 the industry was flourishing.

“For as long as people have fished and traded out of the mouth of the Wear, ships have been built here,” said Dr Gill Cookson, of Durham Victoria County History.

“The industry grew up on both sides of the river estuary. Its main sites were at the Panns, at the harbour entrance on the sands of Monkwearmouth Shore, and at Pallion.”

The 17th-century shipbuilders and boatwrights were mostly prosperous. Many owned luxurious houses, set alongside their yards, and often the firms passed down the generations.

“Many of the ships built were colliers in the 1700s,” said Dr Cookson. “Their usual capacity was about 30 chaldrons of coal, or 80 tons. The largest could take double that.”

The biggest vessel built in Sunderland in the 18th century was the Lord Duncan – which boasted a length of 163ft (50m), a breadth of 39ft (12m) and weighed in at 925 tons.

Indeed, the River Wear had to be deepened by excavation before the ship could set sail from Southwick Quay in 1798, and spectators were “engulfed” in water during the launch.

It was, however, the Napoleonic Wars which laid the foundations for Sunderland’s extraordinary rise to fame in shipbuilding.

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.

“In shipbuilding,” said a commentator at the time, “the port of Sunderland stands at present the highest of any in the United Kingdom.”

Shipyard numbers continued to increase in Victorian times, peaking in the mid-1850s at 74. A steep decline followed, however, with dozens closing by the 1870s.

“The number of yards fell because of significant technical changes and the new demands these brought” said Dr Cookson.

“In 1852, the first iron-hulled collier was launched. Boilermakers, rather than ships’ carpenters, built iron ships. Steam-power was also increasingly used.”

There was, however, a long overlap between wooden and iron shipbuilding. As late as 1857, James Laing launched the largest wooden ship ever to be built on the Wear – Duncan Dunbar.

“During the decades of change, many long-established businesses folded. Names such as Nicholson and Reay disappeared, unable to keep up with new technologies,” said Dr Cookson.

“John Candlish, later an MP for Sunderland, was one wooden shipbuilder who did not manage to convert to iron. His Southwick premises were bought by Robert Thompson & Sons, c.1855.”

Several of the great names in shipbuilding lived on, however, for decades – including Laing’s, which started in 1793 and later moved to Deptford.

“James Laing, who succeeded his father at the firm in 1843, was a man of great vision and ability, He was among the first to make the transition to iron ships,” said Dr Cookson.

“His business specialised in passenger clippers and steamers, before starting to make oil tankers in the 1890s, and later passenger liners.”

Other big names in shipbuilding included 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.

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, the yard covered 33 acres.

Short Bros, William Pickersgill, John Priestman and William Pile also brought shipbuilding glory to Sunderland and, in 1906, a total of 366,000 tons of shipping was launched.

“The industry accounted for perhaps 30 to 40 per cent of the male labour force of Sunderland, about 12,500 working in the yards themselves, and up to 20,000 men in total,” said Dr Cookson.

British shipyards had an overwhelming share of the world market in merchant shipping on the eve of the First World War. But demand was already proving alarmingly volatile.

Indeed, the interwar depression brought mass unemployment and great suffering to Wearside. The worst year, 1932, saw just two small colliers launched on the river, by SP Austin.

The Second World War, however, saw Sunderland build 27per cent of all UK merchant ships during the conflict, reaching its highest production level in 1942 with 375,000 merchant tons.

Of the 1.5million tons launched during the war, Doxford was responsible for half-a-million – 75 ships in total – while JL Thompson developed the prototype of the American Liberty Ship.

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.

JL Thompson, already the owner of Crown, later joined with Laing and Sunderland Shipbuilding and Engineering Co, before amalgamating with Doxford in 1961.

“The new group, Doxford and Sunderland Shipbuilding and Engineering Co, was taken over by the Court Line in 1972, to become Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd,” said Dr Cookson.

“When Court Line, a shipping and travel business, went into liquidation, the entire Sunderland shipbuilding industry was nationalised as British Shipbuilders.

“With modern facilities, reasonably healthy order books and improved industrial relations, there was optimism. But the government in 1987 embarked on a policy of privatisation.

“They sold Govan yards ahead of those on Wearside, and entered a secret agreement that meant Sunderland shipbuilding must cease.

“Austin and Pickersgill was the last of the shipyards to close, in 1989, marking the end of centuries of shipbuilding on the Wear.”