Salute to the river

A memorial to Sunderland's shipbuilding heritage has just been unveiled – 20 years after the final yard on the Wear closed.

Ken Maddison has seen a great many changes along the banks of the River Wear in his 87 years.

Joining JL Thompson's shipyard as a lad of 14, he witnessed the devastation of the depression, the boom time of war and the sad decline of the final years of shipbuilding.

It is rather fitting, therefore, that Ken is a member of the group which has just unveiled the first riverside memorial to the shipyards of Sunderland.

Monkwearmouth Local History Group paid for the 3,500 tribute, a map of where all the main yards once stood, out of its own funds.

"Sunderland has such a great shipbuilding history. It is only right that a memorial should be set up. I am very pleased to have been part of it," said Ken.

The banks of the Wear were once "studded with small shipbuilding yards as far as the tide flowed", according to 19th century historian William Brockie.

Indeed, space was at such a premium along the water's edge that one yard had to carry out a rooftop launch – after a house was built in front of its slipway.

Today, the water laps against quiet banks and the shipyards are no more. Until now, however, there has been no memorial to the shipyards on the river bank.

"The idea came from when I used to hold sculpture walks along the riverside and visitors would ask where the shipyards had been," said group secretary Joan Lynch.

"These people, who were from all over the world, had heard about our shipbuilding history, but there was nothing to show for it except a piece of rusting girder."

The first recorded shipbuilder on the River Wear was Thomas Menville, who was granted space at Hendon by the Bishop for building boats in 1346.

Thousands of Wearsiders followed in his footsteps, with Sunderland eventually becoming known as the "Biggest shipbuilding town in the world".

Three launches a day were not uncommon, but a real Red Letter Day for Sunderland came on March 6, 1947, when three ships went down the slipway within an hour.

"Although we obviously had a great reputation for shipbuilding, there was just nothing to show for it some 20 years after the last yard closed," said Joan.

"That is why the group decided to provide a memorial to the yards, featuring a map of them. It means visitors will now be able to visualise where they once were."

The cost of the tribute was raised through membership fees, a 500 Community Chest grant and a 1,000 legacy from a former member and shipyard worker.

Situated just a few yards from the riverside seats in front of the Glass Centre, the map – which is attached to a 6ft plinth – stands on land once owned by JL Thompson's.

"There was nothing, apart from the rusty girder, to indicate there had ever been a shipbuilding industry on the Wear," said vice-chairman of the group, Frank Dembry.

"Creating a fitting tribute was rather an expensive endeavour for a voluntary group, but ultimately very satisfying. We are all very pleased with the way it turned out.

"I would think almost every family in the town has someone connected with shipbuilding. It was sad beyond description that there was no memorial before now."

It is not the first time the Monkwearmouth historians have paid tribute to the shipyards, as members commissioned two stained glass windows several years ago too.

The windows, reflecting how the Liberty ships of the Second World War were originally designed in Sunderland, are now on show at Monkwearmouth library and the Civic Centre.

"People still regard the shipyards as part of the identity of Sunderland, and I personally think they are a very important part of our heritage," said Frank, 79.

"When I was a young lad, you only had to cross the bridge and look down at the river to see the men at work, hear the hammering and smell the smoke from the yards.

"I lived very close to the yards and, each morning, you could hear the fellows going to work in their hobnail boots. You knew it was time to get up when they came past.

"The yards even had a hand in our New Year celebrations, blowing their buzzers at midnight. All the ships in the river did that too, which sounded wonderful."

Sadly, the years following the boom of wartime production saw the business slowly decline until, in December 1988, the last of Sunderland's yards was closed down. The industry did not die without a struggle, with thousands of Wearsiders – as well as the Echo – campaigning to save the yards. Today, however, they are just a memory.

Ken, of Fulwell, had retired from his job as a draughtsman at JL Thompson by the time of the final closure, but the decision still remained a poignant one for him.

"I had always thought it would be nice to have a memorial to the shipyards and, when the idea came up, I pushed for a map rather than a plaque on the ground," he said. "It's in the right place too, right down by the river. It means people will be able to look at the map and remember the yards, which will be a very nice thing."

Read more in today's Echo