The cornerstone of our shipping past

TODAY we continue our gentle meander up the River Wear, looking at the shipyards which once made Sunderland "The biggest shipbuilding town in the world." In the third part of a short series, photographer GEORGE TAYLOR and reporter SARAH STONER this week concentrate on the history of Sir James Laing and Sons.

THE River Wear glided past a Laing shipyard for three centuries – but none more famous than that of Sir James Laing and Sons.

Enjoying a reputation for high-class merchant and passenger ships, the yard built some of the most prestigious vessels of the 19th and 20th centuries.

But the hustle and bustle of life at Laings, as documented in these photographs by George Taylor, is long gone. The once-thriving yard is now just a memory.

"I took pictures of Laing's for the last 20 years or so it was in action," recalls the 79-year-old, who often flew over the yard to capture his unique images.

"First, I'd take photos of a ship being built, then make an album once it was finished. I'd keep a copy for myself, give one to Laings and also one to the shipping company.

"I really enjoyed documenting the whole building process, from the beginning to the final launch. My pictures and albums went all over the world."

George III was on the throne and the American War of Independence had just ended when the first Laing shipyard started building boats on the River Wear.

But while George was to lose both the American colonies and his mind, the Laing business continued to flourish for almost 300 years.

"It was a great yard," Mr Taylor recalls fondly. "I would fly over it every night of the week, if I got a chance, just to take pictures of the ships being built there.

"I took photos of the last ship ever launched there, the Mitla, as well as ships like the Hupeh, La Pampa, La Chocra and Vishva Pankaj. It was such a shame it was closed."

The Laing shipbuilders were descended from a yeoman family named Laing, who hailed from the Fifeshire village of Pittenweem in the 18th century.

Philip Laing, a yeoman farmer and ship-owner, left the rugged community for Sunderland in 1792, bringing with him his wife, Sophia Lundy Laing.

A year later, he joined forces with his elder brother, John, to open a shipyard on Monkwearmouth shore, next to where Wearmouth Bridge was being built.

Their first ship was the Horla, a 248-tonne vessel bought by Captain Forster of Whitburn. Another early one, a 91ft vessel named Polly, was bought by William Wheatley for 5,426.

They quickly developed a reputation for producing fine ships and, with business booming, they opened a dry dock specialising in ship repairs in 1804.

An advert from that time reads: "John and Philip Laing, having completed their dry docks and laid in a stock of the choicest materials, hope by assiduity and attention to merit a continuance of the favours of their friends and the public."

The partnership between the brothers lasted until May 1818, when Philip bought the company and started trading on his own.

One of his most notable ships was the 76ft Kent of 1814 – the first built at Sunderland to be fitted with chain cables instead of hempen rope.

This was followed in 1815 by the Caledonia, one of the first free trade ships sent to India to import tea after the collapse of the East India Company.

Possibly his finest contribution to Sunderland's shipbuilding history made its first appearance at Philip's shipyard in 1823 – his son, James Laing.

By 1843, James took over the firm at the age of just 20. He was to make it a world-wide success.

The first ship built by Sir James was the Agincourt, a 116ft East India teakwood vessel developed for Duncan Dunbar of Limehouse.

And two years later, in 1846, the Philip Laing was launched – being used to take emigrants, accompanied by a Presbyterian minister, from Glasgow to New Zealand.

The ship landed at Dunedin, the first party to do so, and the ship's bell was used to replace the cracked and broken one of the local town church.

Another emigrant ship built by Laings, the Dunbar of 1853, was less successful. After running aground in Sydney Harbour, all her passengers except one perished.

The sole survivor, an old man, was pitched on to a rock following the accident, which he managed to cling on to until rescued.

The days of wooden ships were, however, drawing to a close. Just 10 years after taking over the yard, James launched his first iron-built ship, the 167ft Amity.

One year later came a steamer, the Vulture, followed by the Wearmouth and Black Diamond in 1855, which both served in the Crimean War.

Laing's final wooden ship, the Parramatta, was launched in 1866, after which he concentrated on building high-class merchant and passenger vessels.

One his best remembered was the Torrens of 1875, a full-rigged ship which sailed from London to Adelaide in Australia in the record time of 64 days.

The Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad served as the ship's second mate from 1891-93.

As time passed, so the yard continued to flourish and in 1897, when James was knighted, its name was changed to Sir James Laing and Sons.

The yard produced ships by the dozen for many prestigious customers over the next few years, including the Royal Mail and P&O cruise liners.

More than 3,000 men were employed in these halcyon days but, following the death of Sir James soon after his knighthood, the firm started suffering severe losses.

Eventually, following the financially draining conversion of HMS Cyclops in 1907, a plea was issued to Sir James Marr to join Laing's.

Marr – another of Sunderland's great shipbuilders – managed to steer Laing's back to financial security and the yard continued for another 80 years.

The Cyclops itself went on to serve in World War One and Two, and was used as a depot ship for the first submarine flotilla at Chatham, Kent, in 1920.

Naval ships provided Laings with the bulk of its work during World War One, with the yard producing 18 vessels, weighing 109,924 tonnes.

The depression which followed, however, saw order books dry up – until Marr set up the Silver Line and ordered three cargo ships each from JL Thompsons and Laings.

The "Hungry Thirties" saw just seven ships launched on the Wear in 1931, but while Doxfords was forced to close temporarily, Laing's battled on.

Ironically, it was World War Two which proved the saviour of Sunderland's yards. The depression-hit firms were to play a crucial role in the war effort.

A record number of ships were built in Sunderland during this time, with Doxford's and JL Thompson's the busiest.

Laings, although busy too, also suffered badly at the hands of Hitler's Luftwaffe. A daytime raid in 1940 killed four men, after five bombs fell on the yard one lunchtime.

Despite the tragedy work went on and, in the late 1940s, the yard was provided with an expensive new fitting-out berth as well as a launching berth.

Marr said in 1946: "On a narrow river, with many difficult bends and corners, we manage to launch more merchant ship tonnage than any other town in the world."

Three launches a day was not an uncommon sight in Sunderland at this time. Indeed, on March 6, 1947, there were three launches in just one hour.

Laings was at the forefront of this success and, in 1954, it merged with Thompson's and Sunderland Forge to become Sunderland Shipbuilding Dry Docks & Engineering Company Ltd.

The year 1961 saw Doxford's join the group too, now renamed Doxford and Sunderland Shipbuilding and Engineering Group, and success followed success.

But then Court Line took over the firm in 1971, renaming it Sunderland Shipbuilders Ltd – and promptly collapsed. The yards were taken under Government control.

In 1977, following the nationalisation of shipbuilding, Austin and Pickersgill joined the Doxford, Thompson and Laing yards to become part of British Shipbuilders.

The final days of shipbuilding on the Wear saw the yards become part of North East Shipbuilders Ltd. The venture did not, however, last long.

The last ship launched from Laing's was the Mitla, which made its way down the slipway on May 3, 1985. Today, the yard is but a memory.

* Details taken from archive records and the book Sunderland – The Biggest Shipbuilding Town in the World, by Alan Brett and Andrew Clark.

NEWS FOCUS

Identity crisis on the cards?

ID cards will help smash the annual 10million identity fraud bill across Wearside, combat terrorism and beat illegal immigration, according to Tony Blair. But Chief Reporter CRAIG THOMPSON asks if the controversial cards will improve our lives or infringe our freedom.

IT'S a hot potato. Dogged by controversy and seemingly endless debate, the national identity card is once again hitting the headlines.

In a major relaunch of the Government's crime strategy, the Prime Minister has once again given his passionate support for the controversial cards, to be introduced during the next five years under the Identity Card Act.

Those opposing the scheme are again claiming it will be too expensive, and human rights groups argue the cards infringe on liberty and will have no effect in tackling terrorism and identity fraud.

The introduction of the cards will cost 5.4billion over 10 years.

Amid the benefits the Government claims for them, it says they will play a vital role in helping tackle immigration issues.

The Rev Stephen Taylor, of Sunderland Minster, has carried out extensive work with asylum seekers in Sunderland.

He said: "I have always been broadly in favour of identity cards because they provide the opportunity to clear up any confusion about people's status. They would get rid of any ambiguities there might be.

"Since the September 11 terror attacks it has been difficult for many groups and I believe the cards would help put us all on an equal footing, which can only be a good thing for the whole community."

Tony Blair believes the national identity system will have direct benefits in making our borders more secure and countering illegal immigration.

For the first time, the cards will allow checks on those coming into the country, their eligibility to work, for free hospital treatment or to claim benefits.

In a bid to widen the appeal of the cards, the Government argues they will help police battle criminal gangs.

They could include fingerprints, a digital facial and iris scan and personal information, including address.

But, according to human rights organisations, by their very nature, the cards infringe the privacy of every individual and change people's relationship with the state.

Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti said: "ID cards are not, as the Government proposes, the magic bullet against terrorists, fraudsters, and illegal immigrants.

"In addition to the exorbitant financial cost, this scheme comes with immeasurable hidden costs to our privacy, race relations, and traditional freedoms."

According to security sources, terrorists routinely use multiple identities – up to 50 at a time – to hide and confuse. This is something al-Qaida train people at their camps to do.

It is hoped the introduction of an ID card will help counter this problem, which is now accepted as a universal threat.

The Government claims the card will also tackle the problem of identity fraud, which already costs 1.7billion annually – a figure that has increased by 500 per cent in recent years.

This type of fraud is leaving people on Wearside 10million a year out of pocket, while, just weeks ago, police warned that all personal documents, including bank statements and credit card details, should be shredded.

Fraser Kemp, Houghton and Washington East MP, urged people across the area to take the issue more seriously in a bid to halt the problem spiralling out of control.

Tony Blair said: "Building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder."

All foreigners from outside the European Union will need an identity card to find work or claim benefits in Britain under a new scheme that comes into force from 2008.

The ID card plan is the world's most ambitious biometric scheme of its kind. The cards are used in about a dozen European Union countries but are not always compulsory and do not carry as much data as those planned for Britain.

* What the law would mean for you

What are the plans?

EVERYONE over 16 applying for a passport will have their details – including fingerprints, eye or facial scans – added to a National Identity register from 2008.

Why is the UK getting identity cards?

THE Government says it wants to give people a sure-fire way of proving they are who they say they are. It argues ID cards will boost national security, tackle identity fraud, prevent illegal working and improve border controls.

What information will be on the cards?

THE card will contain basic identification information, including a photograph of the card holder, along with their name, address, gender and date of birth. A microchip would also hold biometric information – a person's fingerprints or iris or facial scans, which are unique to the individual.

Are the details stored centrally too?

YES. A national database will be created holding the personal information of all those issued with a card. The whole scheme will be overseen by a new independent watchdog. Some critics fear too many people will have access to the database.

Did everyone in Parliament back the plans?

NO. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats oppose the plans. The House of Lords also rejected the plans five times.

How much will ID cards cost?

PEOPLE would have to pay 30 for a stand-alone ID card. Ministers say it will cost an estimated 93 to produce a combined passport and identity card.

* THE Identity Card Act:

Covers the whole of the UK;

Establishes a national ID register;

Ensures checks can be made against other databases to cross-check people's ID;

Lists safeguards on the sort of data that can be held;

Establishes a criminal offence of possessing false ID documents;

Provides the power to make it compulsory in the future to register and be issued with an ID card.

* Top priority

HOME Secretary John Reid has also revealed crime will be the centrepiece of next Wednesday's Queen's Speech.

He said security – personal, community, national and international – would be a top priority for people in the next 10 years.