Shadows of a glorious past

An exhibition celebrating the 10th birthday of a tourist hot spot is going back to its "glass roots"

It is 21 years since the River Wear echoed with the sounds of thousands of shipyard workers hammering, banging and generally going about their business.

But memories of that time are being kept alive by a Wearside tourist attraction built on the site of J.L.Thompson's shipyard – the National Glass Centre (NGC).

The complex is now celebrating its 10th anniversary with an exhibition featuring old photographs of the river and its shipyards, as well as memorabilia from the Thompson family.

"My house is in chaos after searching out items for the display," said Sarah Thompson, wife of Patrick – the last Thompson to have worked at the Sunderland yard. My husband kept everything to do with his life and work in shipbuilding, right down to his wartime ration book. But it is nice to think the memory of the yards is being kept alive.

"Except for the river and a bollard, you really couldn't tell our yard had been there. At least the display will help, although I think a maritime heritage centre would be a good idea."

The display, which runs until April 19, features architectural drawings, plans and models for the design of the glass centre, as well as archive shipyard pictures from the Sunderland Echo.

Photographs taken by local residents such as Mary Robinson, of Monkwearmouth History Group, are also featured, together with etchings and prints by artist Godfrey Irving.

"These archives sit beside photography commissioned by NGC, both at the launch of the building and, more recently, of a futuristic view," said spokeswoman Alex Evans.

"The exhibition also features photographs and family memorabilia from the Thompson family, providing a fascinating insight into the history of the Thompson shipyard."

It was in 1976 that Patrick Thompson stood down as a director of Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd, ending his family's 157-year link to shipbuilding on the River Wear.

He was the sixth generation of Thompson's to have been involved in the industry, after his great,great, great grandfather Robert Thompson started building ships in 1820.

"From the setting up of the firm of Robert Thompson & Sons, to the closure of the North Sands Yard in 1979, over 740 ships took to the water from this site on the Wear," said Alex.

The Second World War saw Sunderland play a crucial role in building new ships and repairing damaged ones, including the development of the world-famous Liberty Ship at Thompson's.

But in the years following the war, with cheaper metal available abroad, it became increasingly difficult for the Wear yards to compete and many were closed or merged.

"The last two remaining shipyard groups merged in 1980 but then, in 1988, after more than 550 years of history, shipbuilding on the River Wear ended," said Alex.

"Reflecting this in our display are photographs by Andy Martin, who offers a poignant study of the dereliction and decay of pre-regenerated, former industrial sites of Sunderland.

"This brings us full circle to NGC, one of the first buildings in Sunderland to mark the beginning of the city's regeneration, breathing new life into the area."

Read more in today's Echo