North East Shipbuilding

Shipbuilding 1790 to 1899

This is a brief outline of shipbuilding history in the North East up to 1899. has long been one of the region’s most important industries. In 1294 Newcastle built a galley for the King’s fleet and ships were built at Sunderland from at least 1346, and at Stockton from at least 1470. The early ships were built of wood but in the nineteenth century there was a move towards building ships of iron.

Swan Hunter Shipyard, Wallsend.
Former Swan Hunter Shipyard, Wallsend © David Simpson

Sunderland shipbuilding

Sunderland developed as a coal port but it was Sunderland’s place as the largest shipbuilding town in the world that gave the town its fame. The first recorded shipbuilder was Thomas Menville at Hendon in 1346. By 1790 Sundertand was building around nineteen ships per year. It became the most important shipbuilding centre in the country in the 1830s and by 1840 there were 65 shipyards.

Mackems at work from Rains Eye plan
Detail from Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland circa 1790 showing Wearsiders at work building ships.

Over 150 wooden vessels were built at Sunderland in 1850 when 2,025 shipwrights worked in the town. A further 2,000 were employed in related industries. Sunderland’s first iron ships were built from 1852 and wooden shipbuilding ceased here in 1876. Sunderland shipbuilders included Austin and Son 1826, William Pickersgill 1851 and William Doxford 1840.

From around the late eighteenth century some enterprising Sunderland shipbuilders could ‘make’ ships or ‘build’ ships according to price. The making of ships was a side line for these shipwrights whereas a ship that was built had a much higher guarantee of quality (and presumably safety). So they could either ‘mackem‘ or’ build’em’. This gave rise to some kind of derisory comment about Sunderland making ships first mentioned in thhe 1850s.

Teesside ships

In 1678 Stockton was building ships of 200 burthen and Yarm had an early shipbuilding trade at around this time, but it was in the late eighteenth century that shipbuilding really began to develop. Between 1790 and 1805 Thomas Haw of Stockton was a builder of ships for the Napoleonic wars, but Middlesbrough shipbuilding did not begin until 1833 when a wooden sailing ship called The Middlesbro’ was built.

Teesside’s first iron ship was a screw steamer called The Advance’, built at South Stockton (Thornaby) in 1854, and Teesside’s first steel was ‘Little Lucy’ built in 1858. One famous Teesside-built ship was the 377 feet long Talpore, built by Pearse and Co of Stockton in 1860. It was a troop ship for the River Indus, and was the world’s largest river steamer at the time.

Hartlepool ships

Thomas Richardson of Castle Eden and John Parkin of Sunderland established a shipyard at Old Hartlepool in 1835 and built The Castle Eden ship. The shipbuilding company of William Gray was established here in 1862 and Gray became one of the most influential men in the town. He was the first mayor of West Hartlepool in 1887. William Gray shipbuilders won the Blue Ribband prize for maximum output in 1878, 1882, 1888, 1895, 1898 and 1900. The yard closed in 1961.

Charles Mark Palmer
Statue of Charles Mark Palmer, Jarrow Town Centre.

Tyneside yards

South Shields born Charles Mark Palmer established a yard at Jarrow in 1851 and built its first iron collier ‘The John Bowes’ in the following year. It was the first ever sea-going screw collier and was built for John Bowes for shipping coal to London.

Palmers were also famed for building the first rolled armour plates for warships in 1854. William Smith and Co launched the 1600 ton Blenheim in 1848. W.G. Armstrong, the famous northern engineer, gained interests in the Tyneside shipbuilding firm of Mitchells in 1882 and the company of W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co was formed. The yard built battleships as well as a ship called The Gluckauf, which was arguably the world’s first oil tanker. It was launched by the yard in 1886.

George Hunter

Swan and Hunter

Scotsman Charles Mitchell started building ships at Walker on Tyne in 1852 and purchased a 6.5 acre site at Wallsend in 1873 to soak up excess orders from his Walker shipyard. The new yard failed financially and was handed to his brother-in-law Charles Swan. Charles and his brother Henry were directors of the Wallsend Slipway Company, a repair yard established by Mitchell in 1871.

In 1878 Charles arranged a partnership with Sunderland shipbuilder George Hunter, but in 1879 Charles died after falling overboard from a channel steamer whilst returning from the continent with his wife. Hunter went into temporary partnership with Swan’s wife before becoming Managing Director in 1880. Swan Hunters built their first steel ship at Wallsend in 1884 and their first Oil Tanker in 1889.

RMS Mauretania


A Most early ships built on the Swan Hunter yard were smaller ships, like colliers and barges, but in 1898 it built its first ocean liner ‘The Ultonia’. It would build a further 21 liners in the period 1898-1903. The most famous ship ever launched was undoubtedly The Mauretania’, a transatlantic ocean liner launched on 20th September 1906.

The ship was 790 feet long with a beam of 88 ft and a gross tonnage of 31,938 tons. It carried 2000 passengers on its maiden voyage on 16 Nov 1907 and captured the Blue Ribband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, a record held for twenty-two years.

Charles Algernon Parsons

Steam turbines

A major pioneering development in marine engineering was the steam turbine, invented by Charles Algernon Parsons. He patented the first steam turbine on Tyneside in 1884. Parsons, born in Ireland in 1854, was the youngest son of the Earl of Rosse and a keen inventor who worked as Junior Partner in the Tyneside engineering firm of Clarke Chapman. In 1894 Parsons’ Marine Turbine Company launched The Turbinia’, a famous vessel powered by electric turbines which can now be seen in Newcastle’s Discovery Museum in Blandford Square.

Closures 1909-1979

Shipyard closures in the twentieth century took place during economic slumps and occurred in two phases, between 1909-1933 and 1960-1993. Early closures included Smiths Dock at North Shields in 1909, which became a ship repair yard, Armstrongs of Elswick in 1921, Richardson Duck of Stockton (1925),

Priestman’s of Sunderland (1933) and Palmers of Jarrow and Hebburn (1933). There were 28 North East closures in this period of which 14 were on the Tyne, 7 on the Wear, 6 on the Tees and 1 at Hartlepool. Six shipyards closed in the 1960s including W.Gray of Hartlepool (1961), Short Brothers of Sunderland (1964) and The Blyth Shipbuiding Company (1966). There were five closures in the region in the 1970s including the Furness yard at Haverton Hill, near Stockton, in 1979.

Shipbuilding 1790 to 1899

Shipbuilding has long been one of the region’s most important industries. In 1294 Newcastle built a galley for the King’s fleet and ships were built at Sunderland from at least 1346, and at Stockton from at least 1470. The early ships were built of wood but in the nineteenth century there was a move towards building ships of iron.

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