What did a store manager, tram driver and a fireman have in common in Sunderland?

Mrs Churchill during her visit to the Sunderland shipyards in 1941.
Mrs Churchill during her visit to the Sunderland shipyards in 1941.

Alan Brett recently began his nostalgic look at the rise and fall of the Sunderland maritime industry by focusing on the shipyards of the First World War.

Today, he continues his spotlight with a feature on the fate of the yards during the Second World War.

A river scene in the Second World War.

A river scene in the Second World War.

Our thanks go to Alan for another great focus and it continues tomorrow.

In the Depression of the 1930s, ship orders dried up.

They were bleak times with workers laid off and four Sunderland shipyards closed. Yards were dismantled and thousands of men forced to find alternative work.

Yet within 18 months of the start of the Second World War, the whole picture changed once more.

Ernest Bevin called upon these men to return to shipbuilding where their skills were desperately needed. Hundreds of Wearsiders responded to the call and offered their services at three local employment exchanges in March 1941.

Alan Brett

The Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, called on the Wearside men of the yards to return to shipbuilding. Hundreds of Wearsiders responded. They converged on three local employment exchanges in March 1941.

And soon, they were back ... a department store manager who was a draughtsman until 1930, a bakery manager who had been a riveter, a public house manager formerly a plater, a tram driver who used to be a boilermaker and a fireman who had been an electrician in the yards.

It helped make the following year’s mercantile output the highest on record – 374,794 gross tons. Doxford’s Pallion yard led the way with 116,298 tons followed by JL Thompson’s, Laing’s, Shorts, Bartram’s,

Pickersgill’s and Austin’s.

On April 24, 1941, the Prime Minister’s wife, Clementine Churchill, visited a number of Sunderland shipyards. On her tour of Bartram’s she watched 19-year-old apprentice welder Albert Adams at work.

At this time welding was increasingly used in the yards but riveting was still the most widespread form of ship construction. After the war, welding came into its own and, by the mid 1960s, there were only 25 riveters in all the Wear yards compared to 1,077 welders in the war.

The war was a source of great activity for the Wearside yards. In September 1940, R. Cyril Thompson (the managing director of JL Thompson) led an Admiralty Merchant Shipbuilding Mission to the USA. The aim was to have 60 cargo ships mass-produced by American yards.

Thompson took with him detailed ship plans that his own yard had produced and these formed the standard design for the Liberty Ship.

The first of these from JL Thompson’s was the Empire Liberty which was launched on August 23, 1941 while across the Atlantic between 1942 and 1945 a further 2,710 Liberty Ships were built.

As well as making a huge contribution to the war effort by building merchant ships the Wear yards also fulfilled a large number of Admiralty contracts. In 1943, Pickersgill’s Southwick yard began concentrating on building corvettes, frigates, landing craft, tugs and transport ferries.

To help meet these orders Pickersgill’s took over the derelict Priestman yard.

When not turning out colliers at their Wear Dock Yard, Austin’s built the corvette HMS Amberley Castle and a number of smaller craft for the Admiralty.

The firm’s pontoon was also in great demand and the yard repaired over a thousand vessels during the war. Other yards also combined shipbuilding with repair work throughout the global conflict.

Conversion and refit work was carried out at Greenwell’s dry dock despite oil storage tankers on the site going up in flames after being hit in an air raid. Bombs also fell on JL Thompson’s and Laing’s yards causing damage and affecting production.

Between September 1939 and September 1944, the Wear yards built 2451/2 merchant ships with a gross tonnage of just over one and a half million tons – 27% of the total output of UK shipyards.

The figures did not include the final year of the war as this reflected the beginning of a return to peacetime production.

Watch out for more tomorrow.