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 Hartlepool.

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

The drapery business was to prove a success, and Gray reinvested his profits in sailing ships. Gray had become the largest owner of wooden ship tonnage in Hartlepool by 1863.

Gray 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 firm concentrated on the construction of iron ships, which were increasingly replacing wooden vessels.

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

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 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 to the aggregate value of £3.1 million by 1880. The firm employed 1,400 workmen, and was indisputably the largest industrial firm in Hartlepool.

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. Gray was appointed the first Mayor of West Hartlepool in 1887.

Sir William Gray
Sir William Gray (1823 – 1898)

William Gray & Co became a limited company from 1888, with a capital of £350,000. Weekly pay to 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 Cana.

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. An American newspaper reported that William Gray “almost owned the town”.

William Gray was knighted by Queen Victoria 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, 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 Gray was erected in Hartlepool, paid for by public subscription, in 1898. Gray died later that year worth over £1.5 million.

William Gray was succeeded in business by his only surviving son, William Cresswell Gray (1867 – 1924). He cleared the debts of all the churches and chapels of Hartlepool, amounting to £9,000, in 1899.

In 1897 the firm employed over 2,000 men. In 1898 Gray & Co was the largest shipbuilder in the world, 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. By 1901 the company employed 2,000 to 3,000 workers.

In aggregate between 1901 and 1909, Gray & Co launched the sixth largest tonnage of shipping among British companies. In 1912 the firm built 20 ships of over 80,000 gross tons, the fourth highest total in Britain. In 1915 Gray & Co was the fourth largest shipbuilder in the world.

The end of the First World War witnessed a boom for shipbuilders. To meet demand, a new shipyard was established at Pallion on the River Wear.

Although Christopher Furness had attempted to do so, unsuccessfully, it was William Gray & Co that introduced the first large-scale profit-sharing scheme for shipbuilding industry workers, in 1919. Every employee received a 20 percent share of net profits.

A shipyard fire caused damage estimated at £250,000 in 1920.

In 1920 the firm gifted a park and a worker’s institute to the people of Hartlepool at a cost of £35,000. They also opened a convalescent home at the cost of £10,000.

In 1921 the firm distributed £31,784 to 4,262 employees as part of a profit-sharing scheme.

Sir W C Gray died in 1924, and he was succeeded by his son, Sir William Gray, as chairman in 1925.

In 1928 17 vessels with a total tonnage of 107,393 were launched. In 1929 Gray launched its thousandth ship. By this time the firm 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 Ltd in 1936.

The firm was the second largest British shipbuilder in 1932. During the Second World War, Gray had the second largest output of any shipbuilder in the North East of England, building 90 vessels. At its peak, the firm employed 3,545 men in the shipyard and 1,400 in the engine works.

However, by 1950 they had slipped to eleventh place in the region. The firm received no orders in 1952 or 1953. 300 men were laid off in 1959.

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

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