Swan Hunter of Wallsend

Swan Hunter was the largest shipbuilder in the world by the early twentieth century. The yard built 1,600 ships, including the RMS Mauretania (1906), HMS Ark Royal and numerous super tankers before its closure in 2006.

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.

The seven acre site had 600 to 700 employees. Under boom conditions and Hunter’s leadership, the company steadily expanded.

The name of the firm was changed to Swan Hunter from 1880.

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

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

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

The company shipyards (not including the engine works) employed 2,500 men by July 1897. The works covered over 33 acres.

The neighbouring yard of Schlesinger, Davis & Co was acquired in 1897, and thereafter used to build floating docks.

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

Swan Hunter 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

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, in 1903. The company employed 4,600 people.

Swan Hunter broke the world record for tonnage produced (126,000) in 1906.

The building of the RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, brought the company 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.

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

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

Barclay Curle & Co of Glasgow was acquired in 1913. The merged company 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.

Swan Hunter employed 10,000 people across a 100 acre site by 1920.

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

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

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

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

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 in 1968. 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.

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

Swan Hunter entered into receivership in 1993. It was acquired by a Dutchman, Jaap Kroese (1939 – 2015), for £4 million in 1995.

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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