The following is taken from the brilliant book “Where Ships are Born – Sunderland 1346 – 1946” by J. W. Smith and T. S. Holden. It is a comprehensive and superbly illustrated history of shipbuilding on the Wear during it’s heyday. The history of shipbuilding on the Wear is long and is a continuing source of local pride long after the last yards closed. Along with coal mining, glass making and pottery it is an industry which was part of the fabric of life in Sunderland. When this book was written, Sunderland was still one of the largest, if not THE largest shipbuilding town in the World. It was written with a sense of pride and self assuredness which seems so misplaced knowing that the industry was only decades from decline. There is a foreward to the book, written by J. Ramsay Gebbie, Chairman of the Wear Shipbuilders’ Association, which finishes with the optimistic:
“I feel sure that this splendidly written little book will prove to be of immense interest, not only to the people of the North-East coast of England, but to the many others all over the world who are interested in ships.
The Industry’s wonderful efforts during the two Wars are clearly demonstrated, as is the terrible depression in the early nineteen-thirties and the brilliant recovery that has been made.
The craftsmen of Sunderland are without superiors anywhere, and I look forward to a prosperous future for the Industry and its workpeople.”
We shouldn’t get too hung up on these once great, lost industries. They were hugely important to our story and made Sunderland a prominent place on the world stage, but they are not coming back. So we must look forward. We are looking forward. Sunderland has so much to offer and our rich cultural heritage is an asset to be celebrated and remembered, not a bitter reminder of when times were better.
Notable Dates in Wear Shipbuilding History
1346 First recorded mention of shipbuilding at Sunderland.
1672 The Goodchilds began shipbuilding and continued in the business for 149 years.
1768 The Nicholsons, of Panns, started building.
1790 Nineteen ships built on the Wear.
1792 Launch of the Themis, 574 tons.
1793 Sir James Laing and Sons established.
1797 Robert Thompson born.
1798 March 2nd. Launch of the Lord Duncan.
1799 Ship built on Bishopwearmouth Green.
1807 John Crown and Sons founded.
1823 William Pile, Sunderland shipbuilding genius, born. Died 1873.
1826 S.P. Austin & Son established.
1835 Sir R.A. Bartram born. Died 1925.
1837 Bartram and Sons founded.
1838 William Pickersgill and Sons founded.
1840 William Doxford and Sons founded.
1845 First Sunderland-built steamer launched, Experiment, 296 tons.
1846 Joseph L. Thompson and Sons established.
1850 Short Bros., Ltd., founded.
1852 February 27th. First iron ship, Loftus, 77 tons, built on the Wear.
1853 Wear Shipbuilders’ Association formed.
1854 Robert Thompson commenced at Southwick.
1865 North-Eastern Marine Engineering Works opened.
1875 The Torrens launched.
1878 Doxfords’ engine works opened.
1880 Last wood ship, Coppename, launched by Pickersgills.
1881 Scotia Engine Works opened.
1883 Priestmans’ shipyard opened.
1893 Last Wear-built sailing ship, Margarita, launched by Pickersgills.
1895 MacColl and Pollocks’ engine works opened.
1903 Austins’ pontoon dock opened.
1904 Overhead gantry built over Doxfords west yard berths.
1905 Doxfords won blue riband of shipbuilding world with high output
1912 Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardsons’ Southwick yard opened. Closed 1933.
1914 – Wear shipyards produced about 750,000 tons of merchant shipping, as
1918 well as many naval craft for service in the Great War.
1917 June 15th. King George V and Queen Mary visited Sunderland shipyards.
1918 Grays’ Egis shipyard opened. Dismantled in 1938.
1918 Wear Concrete yard opened at Southwick. Closed 1919.
1920 December 1st. Start of shipyard joiners’ strike, which ended on August 22nd, 1921.
1921 Doxfords’ engined their first ship, Yngaren, with their opposed piston type of oil engine.
1921 Custom of working by the day changed to one of working by the hour.
1923 Boilermarkers’ lockout lasted 29 weeks, April to November.
1925 Greenwells’ dry dock opened.
1930 National Shipbuilders’ Security, Ltd., formed to eliminate redundant building capacity. Four Wear yards closed in consequence – Swan Hunters, Robert Thompsons, Osbourne, Grahams and Grays’ Egis yard.
1933 Bridge dockyard closed.
1935 Government introduced Scrap and Build Scheme to aid ship owners and shipbuilders.
1938 Week’s Summer Holiday with pay introduced for shipyard workers.
1939 March. Government introduced subsidy for British merchant shipping and shipbuilding.
1939 – War! All records for Wear Shipbuilding broken. Sunderland yards
1945 produced a million and a half tons of merchant shipping, or 27 percent of total output for British shipyards, in five years.
1941 Visit of the King and Queen.
1942 Visit of Duke of Kent.
1943 April. Visit of the King and Queen.
1943 June. Visit of the Princess Royal.
1943 Shipbuilding Corporation yard opened at Southwick.
1946 April 30th. Visit of Princess Elizabeth, who launched British Princess tanker at Laing’s.