North East Ships

There are many famous ships, types of ships and engines that were developed in the North East.

Until the 70s, each ship was individually designed, so building a ship was more like building a large (architecturally designed) house than building a car.

In some places this began to change, as a few yards upgraded to become ‘ship factories’. For example, Austin & Pickersgill in Sunderland upgraded their facilities in 1957 to build its well-known SD14 freight carrier, which was a standardised design. This is similar to how modern factories work when mass producing products, even when complex engineering is at play.

Some of the best known ships associated with the region are explored in more detail below.

RMS Mauretania

RMS Mauritania was an ocean liner, built by Wigham Richardson and Swan Hunter and designed by Leonard Peskett. It was launched in 1906 and was the world’s largest ship until 1911 when the RMS Olympic was built - a sistership of the Titanic which was completed in 1912. The ship was well-loved by passengers and won both Eastbound and Westbound prestigious ‘Blue Riband’ prizes for fastest transatlantic crossings, retaining these speed records for 20 years.

TWAM has a website dedicated to the Mauritania: - Mauretania

Amber's Mauritania photographic archive documents the construction of the famous ship, by mostly unknown photographers but including James Cleet of South Shields.

ESSO Northumbria

ESSO Northumbria was the forerunner in a series of large crude oil carrier ships. Built in 1969 by Swan Hunter, it was the largest vessel ever built in Britain. It was launched by HRH Princess Anne.

The Suez Crisis led to the closure of the Suez Canal, and so the large design was a scaled-up version of smaller ships made previously. The hope was that crude oil could be transported more efficiently and cheaply, but the ship was plagued with problems to do with its fittings and hull strength. It was frequently repaired during its short 12 years in service, amid fears of a major spill which was luckily avoided.

The professional film, ‘Launch of the Esso Northumbria’ is part of the North East Film Archive and is available to watch by arrangement. 


The Nicola was the first in a long line of SD14s designed by Austin & Pickersgill Ltd during the 1960s. The name SD14 stands for ‘Shelter Deck 14,000 tons deadweight’. The ships were designed to replace the ‘Liberty ships’ built by American shipyards during World War Two, which helped to secure the Allied victory. By the 1960s the Libery ships were past their best and had to be replaced, which is where the SD14s came in. Because they were a standard design, they could be produced quickly and cheaply, and between 1968 and 1988, 211 SD14s were built, mostly at Austin & Pickersgill but also under license. 

This film about the SD14 Nicola is courtesy of Sunderland Maritime Heritage