Category Archives: Shipping

Ship’s set sail: Irvine’s Shipbuilding Co

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 by Robert Irvine (1824 – 1903) and Alexander Currie in 1863. The first vessel, an iron screw steamer, was launched in 1864. Robert Irvine took full control of the company from 1866.

Robert Irvine was succeeded in management by his son, Robert Irvine Jr (1845-1901), from 1880. 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 (1852 – 1912) 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.

The yard was considerably extended in 1897 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.

Irvine & Co had the capacity to construct 24 steamers per annum in 1908. The Furness Withy shipyard at Middleton, Hartlepool, was acquired in 1909.

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.

The company was acquired by the Commercial Bank of London, led by Clarence C Hatry (1888 – 1965), in 1917. The company prospered during the First World War, but had to reduce its capital in 1920 following a depression in the shipbuilding industry.

The company employed 3,000 employees by 1922. 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. The company entered receivership in 1926.

Capital was further reduced from £740,000 to £157,000 in 1929. The company entered into liquidation in 1930 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.

A Wear we go: William Doxford

Doxford of Sunderland was the largest shipbuilder, and the largest manufacturer of marine engines in the world.

William Doxford (1812–1882) established a shipyard at Coxgreen, Sunderland in 1840. In 1858 he relocated the works to Pallion, Sunderland.

Business expanded after the firm began to build iron ships from 1864. In 1870 a larger yard with a five berth capacity was acquired.

The first government contract came in 1872 with an order for three gunboats.

The engineering works were opened in 1878. The marine engines business was to become as important as shipbuilding to the firm.

In 1879 the firm built the largest steamer afloat, the 4,500 ton Grecian.

The company was incorporated in 1891 with a capital of £200,000, all owned by the Doxford family.

In 1892 the firm launched the first turret-deck steamer. In 1892 the firm launched the Samoa, the largest cargo vessel in the world.

In 1896 the firm launched the largest cargo-carrying vessel ever built in England or Scotland. The Algoa, with a carrying capacity of 11,300 tons, was the second largest ship afloat.

In 1900 the firm laid down the largest private crane in the world.

A limited public offering was offered in 1900. The company had a share capital of £500,000. The firm’s works covered 32 acres.

In 1904 the original five berths were replaced with three berths of greater length, each capable of building a 12,000 ton ship.

In 1905 and 1907 the firm held the “Blue Ribbon” for the largest output of any British shipyard. 20 vessels were launched in 1905 with 86,532 gross tonnage. Output in 1906 was much larger, at 106,000 tons, although the firm did not win the Blue Ribbon.

The company built its first oil engine in 1912.

From 1914 the shipyard and engineering works were dedicated to building destroyers. 21 were built during the First World War.

In 1919 the Sperling Group-controlled Northumberland Shipbuilding Company acquired over 90 percent of William Doxford & Sons. Chaired by Viscount Furness, the combine was one of Europe’s largest industrial companies.

In 1921 the Doxford opposed-piston, airless injection oil engine was introduced.

Charles David Doxford died in 1935, the last member of the Doxford family to take an active interest in the running of the firm.

In 1951 the firm launched its largest vessel yet, the 16,500 ton Charlton Venus tanker.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the Doxford engine had a 25 to 30 percent global market share, and 25 licencees around the world.

In 1961 the Sunderland Shipbuilding Dry Docks and Engineering Company Ltd was acquired. It brought the Wear’s largest engineering works and three shipyards under a single owner.

In 1972 Doxford was acquired by Court Line.

The last Doxford engine was built in 1980. Across its history, 1,200 were sold.

The three Wearside yards of Sunderland Shipbuilders were closed in 1990 with the loss of 2,500 jobs.



Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Palmer’s was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Due to its influence on its Tyneside community, Jarrow was nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.

The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer's shipyard in 1912
The launching of the HMS Queen Mary from Palmer’s shipyard in 1912

Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907), a colliery-owner, and his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne in 1851.

They launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852. The John Bowes was the first steam ship to transport coal from the North of England to London.

Palmer’s received its first Royal Navy contract in 1856. The HMS Terror was the first rolled-iron, armour-plated ship. The Royal Navy association would remain throughout the history of the company.

Four blast-furnaces were built in 1857, and rolling mills in 1859.

Palmer’s was the largest shipbuilder in the world by 1859.

The business employed 3,500 men, consumed 18,000 tons of iron, and produced over 22,000 tons of shipping every year by the early 1860s.

Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow in 1864,

The firm was registered in 1865 as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd.

Rolling mills were established in 1874.

C M Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament from 1874. However the business suffered without his presence, and he was forced to return in 1876 to save the company. Various members of management were dismissed.

In 1883 Palmer broke the record for the largest shipping tonnage (61,113) produced in a single year. Palmer was largely producing cargo-carrying steamships for the coal and iron industries of the North of England.

By 1886 the majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants. In 1893 the shipbuilding works employed 7,600 workers.

The works began to make a loss, and Palmer, facing bankruptcy, resigned as head of the company in 1893.

In 1899 Palmer was the sixth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage. By 1900 just under 10,000 men were employed by the company. Between 1852 and 1900, nearly 1.25 million tons of shipping were produced, more than any other company.


Palmer died in 1907, and Arthur Bryan Gowan (born 1862), a former draughtsman from Berwick upon Tweed, was appointed managing director.

The company employed 7,500 people in 1908, and was amongst the top thirty largest British manufacturing employers. In 1910 the Jarrow works covered nearly three quarters of a mile along the River Tyne, and about 100 acres. The works included a steel-producing plant and five blast furnaces.

In 1910 Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company. Furness planned to extend and consolidate the firm. Under his impetus, in 1911 the firm acquired Robert Stephenson & Sons, with a shipyard at Hebburn. The Hebburn site included the largest dry dock on the East coast; the only one capable of accommodating the new dreadnought battleships. Hebburn would take on merchant work, and Jarrow would be largely dedicated to naval contracts.

Following a reluctance of shareholders to contribute further capital to the company, as well as his ailing health, Furness resigned in 1912. The national coal strike of 1912 cost the firm £30,000.

By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard. In 1919 the firm had a capital of £883,145. In 1921 the steel plant alone employed 2,500 men. By 1926 the firm employed 10,000 people when operating at full capacity. Palmer’s built its thousandth vessel in 1930.

Palmer’s shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.

In 1934 Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield, a dismantling firm, acquired the Jarrow blast furnaces and steel works. The company acquired the yard in 1935.

Vickers Armstrong Ltd acquired the Hebburn site in 1935, which continued to be operated under its old management.

The poverty that ensued among  former Palmers workers led to the Jarrow March of 1936.

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.

George Burton Hunter (1846 – 1937) partnered with the widow of Charles Sheridan Swan and became managing director of a new shipbuilding firm, C S Swan & Hunter, with a yard at Wallsend, Tyneside from 1879.

The seven acre site had 600 to 700 employees. The business steadily expanded under boom conditions and able leadership from Hunter.

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. It held one third of British shipbuilding and repairing capacity.

The British shipbuilding industry was largely nationalised by the government in 1977, 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.

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.

Ship shape: Furness Withy

Furness Withy was one of the “Big Five” British shipping companies alongside Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.

John Furness was a West Hartlepool coal trimmer who married the daughter of his employer, Averil Wilson. He established a provisions and grocery business.

His son, Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912), joined the family business at an early age. Under the leadership of Christopher’s elder brother Thomas, the provisions business developed into one of the largest of its kind in the North of England.

The firm was spending a significant amount on shipping costs, and in 1877 acquired its own vessels and inaugurated a regular service between Boston, Massachusetts and West Hartlepool.

Differences of opinion saw Christopher’s older brother Thomas take full control of the provisions concern from 1882, while Christopher took over the shipping business. Christopher Furness & Co was established as a private company with a capital of £100,000.

A portrait of Christopher Furness
A portrait of Christopher Furness (1852 – 1912)

The firm, with 18 wholly-owned steamers, and stakes in 21 other ships, merged with the West Hartlepool shipbuilding firm of Edward Withy & Co in 1891. The new concern, Furness Withy & Co, had a capital of £700,000.

Christopher Furness was knighted in 1895.

The British Maritime Trust, with 26 ships, was acquired in 1896.

A stake in the marine engineering business of Richardsons, Westgarth & Co of West Hartlepool was acquired in 1900.

The Gulf Line, with seven ships, was acquired in 1902.

Company capital had increased to £3.5 million by 1907. By this time Furness Withy was one of the largest owners of British shipping tonnage.

A stake in Irvine’s shipyard at West Hartlepool was acquired in 1908.

Christopher Furness was a Methodist, and enjoyed good relations with his workforce. He introduced a pioneering co-partnership scheme which enabled employees at his shipbuilding works to purchase shares from 1908. It was the largest scheme of its kind yet introduced in England. Unfortunately the scheme had been quashed by the unions by 1910.

Furness had a restless energy and a thorough knowledge of the shipping industry. Furness was a Member of Parliament for Hartlepool from the 1890s. He was a radical Liberal.

Furness was raised to the Peerage as Baron Furness of Grantley in 1910. He had eleven live-in servants by 1911. When he died in 1912 he left probate of £1.8 million.

By 1910 Furness Withy was one of the Big Five of British shipping, which also included Cunard, Royal Mail, P&O and Ellerman.

Furness Withy was among the hundred largest publicly-quoted companies in Britain by 1911, with a capital of £3.5 million.

A large interest in Houlder Brothers & Co was acquired in 1911. In 1912 the Warren Line of Liverpool was acquired. By 1913 Furness Withy was the third largest British shipping line, as measured by tonnage. By 1914 Furness Withy controlled over one million gross tons of shipping.

In 1916 the firm acquired full control of the Johnston Line of Liverpool. This was followed by the Prince Line of Newcastle, with 38 ships, for £3.3 million.

Through the ownership of the Furness, Manchester and Johnston lines, Furness Withy largely controlled the North Atlantic cargo trade by 1918. It also had an interest in the Argentine meat trade through the Houlder line. The Prince line ran boats to South America and South Africa from New York.

The family interest in Furness Withy was bought out in 1919 and Frederick W Lewis became chairman. By this time group assets were valued at £34 million. Company capital was increased to £5.5 million.

During the Second World War the company lost 42 vessels and 1,078 men to enemy action.

F W Lewis (by now Lord Essendon) died in 1944, and was succeeded as chairman by Ernest H Murrant.

The firm took time to regain the number of ships lost during the war. In 1951 it controlled 81 ships with an aggregate of 680,000 gross tons.

Royal Mail Lines and the Pacific Steam Navigation Co were acquired in 1965. Following the acquisitions Furness Withy operated 64 ships with a 600,000 tonnage.

The Furness repair yard in Hartlepool was acquired by Swan Hunter in 1967.

In 1970 the firm had a fleet of just over 100, and a tonnage of just over one million. The firm employed 9,500 people in the United Kingdom.

Furness Withy had 50 ships of one million tonnes and was the third largest merchant shipping group in Britain by 1980. That year the business was acquired by Orient Overseas Container (Holdings) of Hong Kong for nearly £112.5 million.

Furness Withy was sold to Oetker Group, its present owner, in 1990.