Notable Dates in Wear Shipbuilding History: 1346 – 1946

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

and 1907

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.


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