The story behind Sunderland's biggest shipyard and its contribution to British history

When Sunderland’s new £40m dual carriageway is completed in 2021, thousands of motorists will daily travel past the relocated entrance to the Doxford shipyard in Pallion.

Sunday, 27th October 2019, 8:00 am
The SS Turret from the William Doxford and Sons Ltd book, as seen in 1893.
The SS Turret from the William Doxford and Sons Ltd book, as seen in 1893.

A nod from the new to the old, it will be one of the few physical reminders of a business whose importance to the city is difficult to overstate.

The story, now recorded in a new book, began in 1837 when William Doxford built a small wooden ship on the Wear. In 1840 he opened the shipyard, which produced ships until 1988.

Although the peak of production was in the mid 19th century, perhaps the most historically interesting period for the yard was World War II. Despite the obvious threat of war, Doxford’s had been surprisingly quiet before September 1939.

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William Doxford and Sons Ltd author Patricia Richardson with husband Michael Richardson

But their output between 1939 and 1945 was 75 ships with a combined tonnage of around 480,000. This was about 200,000 tonnes ahead of their nearest rivals on the Wear, JL Thompson.

There were nine shipyards in Sunderland then. But not only did Doxford’s outstrip the other eight, it launched the greatest general cargo ship output of all shipyards on the British mainland.

Cargo ships never captured the imagination in the same way as war ships. But they were arguably more important for one simple reason.

There are many tales from the war of British heroism, ingenuity and resilience. But humans can’t function without food and Sunderland’s shipbuilders were essential in feeding Britain.

Blacksmiths and strikers at Doxford's in 1914.

It was why Hitler was keen to bomb the yards, not least Doxford’s, and why George VI visited in 1941 to boost morale. But World War II provides just one part of the Doxford story.

As a major employer and the heartbeat of Wearside’s economy for 148 years, it gave many thousands of people transferable skills that also benefited other industries aside of shipbuilding.

A new book with 222 pictures called simply William Doxford & Sons Ltd, has been written by Patricia Richardson. She is married to Michael Richardson, great-great grandson of Richard Doxford.

Patricia said: “I have concentrated on the narrative of the business and the people who made things happen. I have not gone into great technical detail.”

William Doxford, founder of the legendary shipyard.

The book is available in Sunderland Museum and online.

The engine works at Doxford's in around 1958.
Spectacular aerial view of Doxford's shipyard in Pallion in the 1960s.