I was a 14-year-old boatbuilder - until German subs wrecked it all

The Sunderland shipyards.
The Sunderland shipyards.
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Amazing memories of working in the Sunderland shipyards have been shared by Wearside man Jack Dowling.

The 91-year-old has recalled how he became a worker in the industry soon after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Four shipwrights including Jack, far right holding a chisel.

Four shipwrights including Jack, far right holding a chisel.

We thank Jack, who grew up in Duck Street in the city, for describing work which he hailed as “fascinating”.

Jack was one of the last submissions in our Maritime Memories competition which has now closed to further entries.

But what a story his was. He started work as a 14-year-old apprentice boat builder working on the construction of wooden lifeboats.

“It was the most fascinating and satisfying job one could wish for because the stem, transom, stern and keel were all made of hardwood while the rest was larch wood, which was steamed to make it pliable,” Jack recalled.

When the German submarines started sinking our ships and the sea was on fire the wooden lifeboats became death traps so the introduction of steel ones sadly ended my boatbuilding career

Jack Dowling

“But sadly when the German submarines started sinking our ships and the sea was on fire the wooden lifeboats became death traps, so the introduction of steel ones sadly ended my boat building career,” he said.

Jack, who now lives in the Belmont area of Durham City, went on to work as a shipwright for yards including Austin’s.

It was close to the Wearmouth Bridge and Jack was involved in every part of the shipbuilding process.

That ranged from laying the keel and the erecting of the frames through to plating and riveting and the eventual launch.

When the yards were beginning to run down and closures were written on the wall, he managed to go to sea as a ship’s carpenter on a vessel undergoing repair and looking for a new crew.

It was a memorable time, but with a wife and young son, the idea of spending long periods away from his family did not appeal.

That is when Jack came ashore and started a new career as an insurance agent. He was just as adept at the jobs at which he excelled and was soon appointed to management.

Our competition attracted some wonderful entries.

Others to have got involved included:

l Norman McGlasham, who is now aged 77, recalled the time when he worked in Sunderland’s Austin and Pickersgill yard on the stern half of the bulk carrier Happy Dragon.

It was back in 1967 when he and the members of other shipbuilding trades stood by on board as the massive section was floated out of the yard and towed to Palmer’s shipyard on the Tyne.

That’s where it was ‘joined in matrimony’ – as he put it – with the bow section of the ship.

Norman, who grew up in Tyne Dock close to where he lives today, learned his trade as an apprentice with the former South Shields Corporation.

But he went on to work in all the yards on the Tyne on behalf of electrical and mechanical contractors Campbell and Isherwood.

l Lifelong Sunderland resident Elsie Cooper Waite could not help growing up immersed in the sights and sounds of the city’s shipbuilding industry.

That’s because her home at the time, now long demolished, was in Deptford Terrace and it overlooked the William Doxford and Sons Shipyard and Engine Works.

Elsie, now aged 79, told how as a young girl she used to accompany her Aunt Katie each evening to the yard entrance to deliver a flask of tea and sandwiches to her Uncle Billy who was the night watchman and occupied a little cabin.

Elsie also recalled the days when the newly built ships were launched into the Wear.

Her Uncle Dill Murray was one of the team with the task of knocking the blocks away to allow the vessel to slide slowly into the water.

l Alan Winter, from Darlington, remembered his first job was working as a 15-year-old tea boy but he was just as vivid with his memories of the pranks which were regular occurrences as well.

They included apprentices being subjected “to these little set ups” such as being sent for a cap full of nail holes, sky hooks and stripy paint, said Alan.

But Alan was just as keen to highlight what a great start to working life it had been for him.

“I was privileged to spend 19 years making navigation lamps out of copper, brass and mild steel by hand.”

Jack’s letter has come in as a late entry to our Maritime Memories competition, the prize for which is a luncheon for the winner and four guests.