Head of steam: William Gray & Co

William Gray & Co was the largest shipbuilder in the world. The founder, Sir William Gray, was largely responsible for the growth of the town of Hartlepool.

William Gray establishes a shipbuilding business
William Gray (1823 – 1898) was born in Blyth, Northumberland. He established himself as a draper in the growing port town of Hartlepool, in the North East of England, from 1843.

Gray made a success of the drapery business, and reinvested his profits into sailing ships. He had become the largest owner of wooden ship tonnage in Hartlepool by 1863.

Sir William Gray
Sir William Gray (1823 – 1898)

Gray decided to enter into shipbuilding for himself, and entered into partnership with John Punshon Denton (1800 -1871), a well-established Hartlepool shipbuilder, from 1862. Denton & Gray launched their first ship the following year. The yard concentrated on the construction of iron ships, which were increasingly replacing wooden vessels.

Pile Spence & Co had pioneered iron steamship construction in Hartlepool in 1855. The business entered into liquidation due to the failure of the Overend Gurney bank, and Denton & Gray acquired its three shipyards in 1869.

John Denton died in 1871 and the business became known as William Gray & Co. By this time the firm was established as the largest shipbuilder in West Hartlepool, with an annual production of 16,490 tons.

William Gray & Co became the largest shipbuilder in the world, as measured by tonnage, for the first time in 1879. The ships were largely mid-sized cargo steamers.

The yard had produced 157 iron vessels with an aggregate value of £3.1 million by 1880. William Gray & Co was indisputably the largest industrial business in Hartlepool, and employed 1,400 workmen.

Gray established the Central Marine Engineering Works to manufacture steam engines from 1884. The chairman was G H Baines and the managing director was Thomas Mudd (1852 – 1898), one of the most talented engineers in the country.

Gray was a man known for his energy, perseverance and integrity. A large factor in his success was his willingness to extend credit to ship owners, or to take stakes in the ships themselves.

A warm and amiable man, Gray was a staunch Presbyterian. He donated thousands of pounds to the non-conformist chapels of Hartlepool in 1881. He was appointed the first Mayor of West Hartlepool in 1887.

William Gray & Co becomes a limited company
William Gray & Co became a limited company with a capital of £350,000 from 1888.

Weekly pay for employees amounted to over £8,000 in 1889.

William Gray & Co was quick to respond to an increasing demand for oil tankers. The yard built Bakuin (1886), the first oil tanker for a British owner. The Murex (1892) was the first of a number of oil tankers built for Shell, and became the first oil tanker to navigate the Suez Canal.

William Gray & Co had launched around 350 vessels, almost all steamships, by 1890. William Gray was also one of the largest shipowners in the United Kingdom. William Gray & Co employed 4,000 to 4,500 men and boys; a third of the population of Hartlepool. It was reported in an American newspaper that William Gray “almost owned the town”.

William Gray received a knighthood in 1890. He was appointed president of the Chamber of Shipping for the United Kingdom in 1891. Gray became High Sheriff of Durham in 1892.

For most of his life a Liberal, Gray stood as the Unionist parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool in 1891. He lost to fellow Hartlepool industrialist Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), and was said to have been “beside himself with rage and disappointment” that his own employees helped to elect a rival. Gray was a good employer, but the electorate preferred the rival Liberal policies. It was alleged that Furness had promised his employees to only hire union labour if he was elected.

A statue of William Gray, paid for by public subscription, was erected in Hartlepool in 1898. Gray died later that year with an estate valued at over £1.5 million.

William Cresswell Gray takes over the business
William Gray was succeeded in business by his only surviving son, William Cresswell Gray (1867 – 1924).

William C Gray spent £9,000 to clear the debts of all the churches and chapels of Hartlepool in 1899.

William Gray & Co employed over 2,000 men in 1897. The company was the largest shipbuilder in the world in 1898, as measured by tonnage, and the second largest the following year. In 1900 it again won the title of the largest shipbuilder in the world. The business employed 2,000 to 3,000 workers by 1901.

Gray & Co launched the sixth largest aggregate tonnage of shipping in Britain between 1901 and 1909.

Gray & Co was the fourth largest shipbuilder in the world in 1915.

Following the First World War there was a rise in demand for new ships. To meet demand, a new shipyard was established at Pallion on the River Wear.

A ship-repairing yard was established at Graythorp, Hartlepool, in 1916.

Despite a failed attempt by Christopher Furness, it was William Gray & Co that successfully introduced the first large-scale profit-sharing scheme for shipbuilding industry workers from 1919. Every employee received a 20 percent share of net profits.

William Gray & Co gifted a park and a worker’s institute to the people of Hartlepool at a cost of £35,000 in 1920. The company also established a convalescent home at the cost of £10,000.

The profit-sharing scheme saw William Gray & Co distribute £31,784 to 4,262 employees in 1921.

Sir William Gray and the demise of the business
Sir William Cresswell Gray died in 1924, and he was succeeded by his son, Sir William Gray (1895 – 1978), as company chairman.

17 vessels with a total tonnage of 107,393 were launched in 1928.

William Gray & Co launched its thousandth ship in 1929. By this time the business had built 774 marine engines, and 2,196 boilers. 3,500 men were employed.

The Wearside yard was closed in 1930, and sold to National Shipbuilders Security in 1936.

William Gray & Co was the second largest British shipbuilder in 1932.

Frederick Cresswell Pyman (1889 – 1966) had been appointed managing director of William Gray & Co by 1939.

William Gray & Co had the second largest output of any shipbuilder in the North East of England during the Second World War, constructing 90 vessels. At its peak, the company employed 3,545 men in the shipyard and 1,400 in the engine works.

William Gray & Co had fallen to eleventh place in the region by 1950. The company received no orders in 1952 or 1953.

F C Pyman suggested that the post-war shipbuilding industry lacked sufficient managers and foremen. The two World Wars had killed off many experienced men, and the trade depression between the wars had seen an underinvestment in training. The industry was also hampered by the fact that trade unions had secured large increases in pay for their workers, but that this was not accompanied by a rise in productivity.

In order to meet capacity for oil tankers, £2 million was invested at the Graythorp site to make it the main shipbuilding centre from the mid-1950s.

Pyman stepped down as managing director in 1955, and was replaced by Stephen Furness and W T Gray as joint-managing directors.

300 men were laid off in 1959.

William Gray & Co launched its last ship in 1961, after which the company was solely engaged in repair work. Amid a trade recession in the early 1960s the company was forced to take on conversion work at a loss in order to provide employment for its workers. 450 men were made redundant in 1962, leaving a workforce of just under 1,000. The firm entered into liquidation in 1963.

The Graythorp site was acquired by Laing Offshore in 1969, and used to construct North Sea oil rigs. The site became the largest dry dock in the world. The site is now owned by Able UK.

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