Swan Hunter of Wallsend

By the early twentieth century Swan Hunter was the largest shipbuilder in the world. Before its closure in 2006, the firm built 1,600 ships, including the HMS Mauretania, HMS Ark Royal and numerous super tankers.

In partnership with the widow of Charles Sheridan Swan, in 1879 George Burton Hunter (1846 – 1937) became managing director of a new enterprise, C S Swan & Hunter, with a shipyard at Wallsend, Tyneside.

A seven acre site with 600 to 700 employees, under boom conditions and Hunter’s leadership, the company steadily expanded.

In 1880 the name of the firm was changed to Swan Hunter.

In 1893 Swan Hunter became the leading Tyneside shipbuilder, in terms of tonnage constructed, for the first time.

In 1895 Swan Hunter was established as a limited liability company, with Hunter as chairman.

An evangelical Anglican, Hunter was a strong temperance advocate. He was regarded as a fair and just employer.

By July 1897 the firm’s shipyards alone (not including the engine works) employed 2,500 men. The works covered over 33 acres.

In 1897 the neighbouring yard of Schlesinger, Davis & Co was acquired, which was thereafter used to build floating docks.

In 1898 Swan Hunter was the second largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage. The following year it was the seventh largest.

The firm differed from competitors in that it built ships inside large sheds, which allowed work to continue during poor weather conditions.

The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900
The Swan Hunter yard circa 1900

In 1903, after winning a valuable contract with Cunard, Swan Hunter merged with Wigham Richardson & Co of Tyneside to create the largest shipbuilder in Britain, with a share capital of £1.5 million. The firm employed 4,600 people.

In 1906 the firm broke the world record for tonnage produced, with 126,000.

The building of the RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, brought the firm worldwide repute. At 30,000 tons, she was the largest ship in the world until the completion of the RMS Olympic in 1911, and the fastest until the maiden voyage of the Bremen in 1929.

Between 1902 and 1909, Swan Hunter had the largest aggregate production of any British shipbuilder: 150 vessels of a total of 569,842 tons.

Between 1910 and 1913, Swan Hunter had the largest output of any shipbuilding firm in the world. In 1912 the firm launched 21 ships with a combined tonnage of over 126,000. The Swan Hunter works on Tyneside covered 78 acres.

In 1913 Barclay Curle & Co of Glasgow was acquired. The merged firm had a combined annual tonnage of 230,000. The Clydeside works covered 60 acres.

During the First World War the firm built over 100 warships and 230 other vessels.

By 1920 the firm employed 10,000 people across a 100 acre site.

In 1921 G B Hunter lamented that American shipyards were twice as efficient as British ones, which were hampered by restrictive trade union practices.

In 1922 Swan Hunter had the largest output of any British shipbuilding company, with a tonnage of just under 120,000.

By 1928 Swan Hunter employed 10,000 men and boys during regular periods.

G B Hunter retired in 1928, and died in 1937.

In 1968, following a recommendation in the Government’s Geddes Report, Swan Hunter merged with fellow Tyneside shipbuilders Vickers, R & W Hawthorne Leslie & Co and John Readhead & Sons. It thus became the largest shipbuilding group in Britain, with 20,000 employees.

In 1977 the British shipbuilding industry was largely nationalised by the government, and Swan Hunter, with 11,000 employees, became a part of British Shipbuilders.

In 1986 Swan Hunter regained its independence in a £5 million management buyout. 4,500 people were employed.

The firm entered receivership in 1993. In 1995 it was bought by a Dutchman, Jaap Kroese, for £4 million.

Swan Hunter ceased to build ships on Tyneside in 2006. The company’s last cranes on the River Tyne were shipped to India in 2009.

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