Tag Archives: shipbuilding

Marching orders: Palmer of Jarrow

Throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century Palmer’s was the largest shipbuilding company in the world. Due to its influence on the 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

In 1851 Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907), a colliery-owner, and his brother George, leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne. In 1852 they launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier.

In 1856 Palmer’s received its first Royal Navy contract. 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.

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

By the early 1860s the firm was employing 3,500 men, consuming 18,000 tons of iron and producing over 22,000 tons of shipping every year.

In 1864 Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow.

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

Rolling mills were established in 1874.

In 1874 C M Palmer was appointed as a Member of Parliament. 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.

palmerstatue

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 on 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

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.

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.

Born in Blyth, Northumberland, in 1843 William Gray (1823 – 1898) established himself as a draper in the growing port town of Hartlepool. The business proved a success, and Gray reinvested his profits in sailing ships. By 1863 William Gray & Co had become the largest owner of wooden ship tonnage in Hartlepool.

In 1862 Gray entered into partnership with John Punshon Denton (1800 -1871), a well-established Hartlepool shipbuilder. Denton & Gray launched their first ship the following year. The firm concentrated on constructing the new iron ships which were increasingly replacing wooden vessels.

In 1869 Denton & Gray took over three shipyards from Pile Spence & Co, who had pioneered iron steamship construction in Hartlepool in 1855. Pile Spence had entered 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.

In 1879 William Gray & Co became the largest shipbuilder in the world, as measured by tonnage, for the first time. The ships were largely mid-sized cargo steamers.

By 1880 the yard had produced 157 iron vessels to the aggregate value of £3.1 million. The firm employed 1,400 workmen, and was indisputably the largest industrial firm in Hartlepool.

Gray established the Central Marine Engineering Works in 1884 to manufacture steam engines. The chairman was G H Baines and the managing director was Thomas Mudd (1852 – 1898), one of the most talented engineers in the country.

A large factor in Gray’s success was his willingness to extend credit to ship owners, or to take stakes in the ships themselves. He was a man known for his energy, perseverance and integrity.

A warm and amiable man, Gray was a staunch Presbyterian. In 1881 he donated thousands of pounds to the non-conformist chapels of Hartlepool. In 1887 Gray was nominated the first Mayor of West Hartlepool.

Sir William Gray
Sir William Gray (1823 – 1898)

The firm became a limited company in 1888, with a capital of £350,000. Weekly pay to employees in 1889 amounted to over £8,000.

As demand for oil tankers grew, the firm was quick to respond. Bakuin (1886) was the first oil tanker for a British owner. The Murex (1892) was the first oil tanker to navigate the Suez Canal, and the first of a number of tankers built for Shell.

By 1890 Gray & Co had launched around 350 vessels, almost all steamships. William Gray was also one of the largest shipowners in the United Kingdom. Gray & Co employed 4000 to 4,500 men and boys; a third of the population of Hartlepool. An American newspaper reported that he “almost owned the town”.

Gray was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1890. In 1891 he became president of the Chamber of Shipping for the United Kingdom. In 1892 he became High Sheriff of Durham.

For most of his life a Liberal, in 1891 Gray stood as the Unionist parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool. 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.

In 1898 a statue of Gray was erected in Hartlepool, paid for by public subscription. Gray died later that year worth over £1.5 million.

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

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.

In 1920  a shipyard fire caused damage estimated at £250,000.

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.