Irvine & Co, along with William Gray & Co, helped make West Hartlepool a major centre for British shipbuilding.
Irvine Currie & Co, shipbuilders, was founded at Hartlepool in 1863 by Robert Irvine (1824 – 1903) and Alexander Currie. The first vessel, an iron screw steamer, was launched in 1864. In 1866 Robert Irvine took full control of the company.
In 1880 Robert Irvine was succeeded in management by his son, Robert Irvine Jr (1845-1901). By this time the firm was better known for ship-repairing than shipbuilding. An average of 300 workmen were employed.
The firm was acquired by Christopher Furness in 1887, and renamed the Irvine Ship Building and Dry Docks Company Ltd.
Irvine’s yard was struck by fire in 1891, with damage estimated at £20,000.
In 1897 the yard was considerably extended to enable it to construct steamers of 10,000 tons deadweight. There were three large berths, and the yard employed around 1,000 men.
Robert Irvine died in 1903 and his estate was valued at £104,238.
In 1908 Irvine & Co had the capacity to construct 24 steamers per annum. In 1909 the Furness Withy shipyard at Middleton, Hartlepool, was acquired.
In 1911 Irvine & Co was the eighth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by gross tonnage. Irvine & Co built twelve ships a year during the First World War.
In 1917 the firm was acquired by the Commercial Bank of London, led by Clarence C Hatry. The firm prospered during the First World War, but by 1920 had to reduce its capital following a depression in the shipbuilding industry.
In 1922 the firm had 3,000 employees. The yard covered eleven acres.
The last Irvine-built vessel to use the dry dock was in 1924. The shipbuilding yard was closed in 1925-6. In 1926 the firm entered receivership.
In 1929 capital was further reduced from £740,000 to £157,000. In 1930 the firm entered liquidation after accruing excessive debts.
Later that year the yard received a reprieve when it was acquired as a going-concern by a syndicate of West Hartlepool businessmen, led by Stephen Furness, with a capital of £20,000. The plan was to maintain the yard with repairing and breaking contracts until the shipbuilding industry revived.
Unfortunately Britain had an oversupply of shipyards, and in 1938 the yard was nationalised by the government and mothballed.
Attempts to reopen the yard during the Second World War were unsuccessful due to a shortage of labour. It was found to be more efficient to simply increase production at existing shipyards.
By 1953 the Middleton yard was owned by J Bryant Roberts. The yard eventually fell into disuse.