Until it closed in 1963, North Shore-based Wearside Boatbuilding Company was celebrated for the skills of its craftsmen in constructing and repairing wooden vessels.
An impressive portfolio once included building and repair of ships’ lifeboats, cabin cruisers, motor yachts, launches and fishing vessels, besides being ladder, block and mast makers.
In 1932, the yard won a huge order for 40 seine netters for the North Cape Development Company of New Zealand and in World War Two made a major contribution to the war effort.
Fifty whalers were built as warship tenders, with numerous motorboats, special craft and lifeboats being constructed or repaired for the Admiralty, War Department and Merchant Navy.
For some years, managing director Major Norman Dugdale held the position of Honorary Secretary of the Sunderland Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
With RNLI lifeboats regularly visiting the yard for overhaul, it was probably through this connection that the firm won its most unusual contract – that of converting an ex-RNLI lifeboat into a Viking longboat!
The vessel concerned was the 45-foot Watson-class lifeboat Elizabeth Newton, which had been built by J Samuel White of Cowes, Isle of Wight. Named in memory of the wife of Captain Richard Newton of Darlington, half of the £10,000 cost had been met by a legacy left by the late Mrs Newton.
Officially named by the Marchioness of Londonderry on August 23, 1924, the new motor lifeboat was stationed at Hartlepool until 1939, when she joined the RNLI reserve fleet, having been overhauled by Wearside Boatbuilding Co only the year before.
After leaving Hartlepool for the last time, she arrived at Sunderland, later deputising at various East Coast lifeboat stations, the last being at Amble, Northumberland.
In May, 1953, having been sold out of RNLI service, Elizabeth Newton was towed to Sunderland to begin an extraordinary transformation on Wearside Boatbuilding’s slipway.
A seven-day deadline was imposed in which to complete her makeover into a Viking ship for the 20th Century Fox film production, “Prince Valiant.”
Released in 1954, the film stars James Mason, Janet Leigh and Robert Wagner and features the efforts of a Viking prince to become a knight in King Arthur’s Court and restore his overthrown father to his rightful throne.
Structural alterations to Elizabeth Newton involved construction of a new stern, rebuilding the bow and shifting and heightening the mast. Although the motor engine remained in place, 18 oars were supplied for use during filming.
On the night of May 19, 1953, the craft was taken to Palmers Hill Quay and lifted onto a trailer for transportation to Scotland.
Later, she took part in scenes filmed off the Isle of Skye complete with square sail, side shields and figureheads.