Palmer’s of Jarrow was the largest shipbuilder in the world throughout much of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Jarrow became nicknamed “Palmer’s Town”.
The Palmer brothers establish a shipbuilding works
Charles Mark Palmer (1822 – 1907) was born in South Shields, the son of a merchant and shipowner.
Charles Palmer partnered with John Bowes to establish a coke-making business. John Bowes & Co grew to become one of the largest colliery concerns in the North of England, producing one million tons of coal per annum.
The growth of the railway network meant that coal from the Midlands could be supplied to the large London market at a lower cost than coal from the North. Palmer believed that coal could be shipped to London at a lower cost if steam-powered vessels were used instead of wooden sailing ships.
Together with his brother George Palmer (1814 – 1879), Charles Palmer leased a shipyard at Jarrow on Tyne from 1851. It had previously been used to make wooden frigates for the Royal Navy.
Palmer Brothers launched the John Bowes, the first successful iron-built, steam-powered, screw-propelled, water-ballasted collier, in 1852. The John Bowes became the first steam ship to transport coal from the North of England to London.
Palmer Brothers soon became known for the quality of its ships,and 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 Brothers 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.
George Palmer retired from business in 1862.
Charles Palmer opened a Mechanic’s Institute for the education of the men of Jarrow in 1864.
Palmers is registered as a company
The business was registered as Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Ltd in 1865.
The Jarrow works covered nearly 100 acres of land by 1869. Four blast furnaces had a capacity of 60,000 tons of pig iron per annum. Around 5,000 men were employed.
Rolling mills were established from 1874.
Charles 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.
Palmers broke the record for the largest shipping tonnage (61,113) produced in a single year in 1883. Palmer was largely producing cargo-carrying steamships for the coal and iron industries of the North of England.
A steel works was established from 1885.
Charles Palmer employed over 20,000 people by 1891, and was one of the largest employers of labour in the country.
The shipbuilding works employed 7,600 people in 1893. The majority of the workforce consisted of Irish immigrants.
The works began to make a loss, and Palmer, facing bankruptcy, resigned as head of the company in 1893.
Palmers was the sixth largest shipbuilder in Britain, as measured by tonnage, in 1899. Just under 10,000 men were employed by the company by 1900. Between 1852 and 1900, nearly 1.25 million tons of shipping were produced, more than any other company.
A steel-producing plant, the third of its kind in England, was opened in 1903.
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 five blast furnaces.
Lord Furness, a local industrialist, became chairman of the company from 1910. 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.
The San Hilario was launched in 1913. Built for the Eagle Oil Transport Company, it was the largest oil tank steamer afloat.
By 1913 the firm had built 76 battleships at its Jarrow yard.
During the First World War Palmers docked and repaired 347 warships and merchant vessels.
Palmers built its thousandth vessel in 1930.
Palmers enters into receivership
Palmers shipyard entered receivership in 1934. It was taken over by National Shipbuilding Securities Ltd, a government company which acquired redundant yards.
Thomas W Ward Ltd of Sheffield, a dismantling firm, acquired the Jarrow blast furnaces and steel works in 1934. 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.