When 245 - and a half - ships were launched on the Wear

Women workers in the shipyards having lunch in 1941.
Women workers in the shipyards having lunch in 1941.

Historian Alan Brett today continues his look at the shipbuilding history of Sunderland.

Perhaps one of the more unusual statistics of the Second World War was that Sunderland built 245 (and a half) merchant ships during it.

An advert for one of the Doxford engines.

An advert for one of the Doxford engines.

The half was the fore-end of the Vardefjell.

It was a Norwegian oil tanker which was broken in two and a new 230ft fore-end was launched from Laing’s Deptford yard on March 24, 1944. Then, it was towed to the Tyne and joined to her old other half at Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson’s.

Doxford’s had by far the highest output of the Wear yards and also built marine engines.

From September 1939, it built 78 ships. All but five were fitted with Doxford oil engines and a further 35 went to other shipbuilders.

Unlike the First World War when most women had been labourers, many of the 700 women who worked in the Wear yards between 1939 and 1945 were employed as welders, crane drivers, burners and painters.

Alan Brett

And let’s not forget another important contributor to Wearside’s wartime success. Over 1,000 women worked in the marine engineering works in Sunderland during the war. Some had skilled or semi-skilled jobs such as working as machinists in the engine shops.

Unlike the First World War when most women had been labourers, many of the 700 who worked in the yards between 1939 and 1945 were welders, crane drivers, burners and painters.

At the end of the war, fears grow that some shipyards would close. The National Shipbuilding Corporation yard at Southwick was seen as the most vulnerable. It had been opened by JL Thompson’s in 1942 on the site of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson’s yard – one of the four shipyards closed in the 1930s.

Meetings were organised in December 1945. Sunderland MP Fred Willey supported the campaign to prevent its closure.

A woman at work on a shipyard painting job in a Sunderland shipyard in 1941.

A woman at work on a shipyard painting job in a Sunderland shipyard in 1941.

The end was only delayed until summer 1947 when the remaining 150 workforce were found jobs in other yards.