Shipyards were not just employers. Workers often lived very close to the rivers, and close-knit communities developed over generations. During times of stability, working for the shipyards often ran in the family. This meant that skills were passed between generations, as demonstrated in this photograph: Fred McCabe, a boy of 12, stands in front of his father, who worked at Swan Hunter’s Neptune Yard, and his grandfather, who was a seagoing engineer.
Even after World War 2, when people started to move out to the newer housing estates, many people’s social lives were closely connected to the place where they, their partner or their parent worked.
For two weeks over summer, each shipyard would close down, and everyone around noticed the lack of noise. In the days before cheap air travel, towns like Whitley Bay, South Shields and Seaburn along the North East coast were a popular destination for holiday makers, and locals were lucky enough to be able to walk or catch a bus to the beach front.
Some yards organise social activities for their workers during the year. For example, this photo from the Tyne & Wear Archive Sunderland Shipbuilding Collection shows children at the Bartram & Son's annual sports day.
The yard also had its own football team. (Picture courtesy Peter Gibson.)
Ship launches were a time for celebration. They always attracted dignitaries, and sometimes even royalty. Many launches were filmed, particularly because this could be used as a marketing opportunity by the shipbuilding companies. Often school children were invited to attend and stood along the sides of the bank. It was a ‘big affair’ for everyone connected to the shipyards. The launches could be opportunities for earning extra money too, but the visible celebration often masked the anxiety workers felt about where the next contract would come from.
Shortly after starting an apprenticeship at Cleland’s Ltd, fifteen-year-old John Dobson was given the honour of presenting a bouquet to a young lady who launched a small cargo vessel, Heathergate. In 'Lost Shipyards of the Tyne’ he recalls this moment, captured in the photograph below.
“I remember I had to go home and get changed into my Sunday suit for the ceremony. When I tried to get back into the yard they didn’t recognise me at first because I was usually dressed in a boiler suit.”
The sons of a ship broker, Ian Wilton, were gvien the honour of launching two barges which were part of an order of six from Clelands Shipyard in 1956. The youngest son, Neil Wilton, still has copies of the photographs and clippings that his mother, Kit, kept at the time. As Neil was only 18 months old at the time, his mother helped him to push the champagne bottle while his elder brother Ian, six years old, managed his own. Ian and his mother made headlines as the first 'mother and son' to launch two ships in quick succession on the Tyne, and Neil was featured as one of the youngest. You can see how significant the launches were by the number of papers that printed the story at the time - view them all here.
A documentary drama produced by Brunner Lloyd Productions for the National Savings Committee (a quasi-government agency) that tells a story about a shipyard worker's dreams of putting to sea in a ship he has helped build, but finds his savings better spent on helping his son through merchant naval college. The film shows dramatised scenes of shipyard family life.
Visit BFI to watch a 1947 film of the making and launch of the Mocamedes.
A record of the 1962 ship launch of the MV British Cavalier, built by Joseph F Thompson & Sons shipyard on the River Wear in Sunderland.
Launch of the MV Clerk-Maxwell" 6th May 1966 (1966). A silent film of the launching ceremony of tanker MV Clerk-Maxwell from Hawthorn Leslie in Hebburn.
Launch of the Teesfield (1959). A silent film that marks the launch of the Teesfield from Furness Shipbuilding Co Ltd in Stockton on Tees.
Oral History interview with Paul Graham as part of the Remembering the 80s project. Paul grew up in High Barnes, Sunderland, and remembers his dad and brother both working in shipyards. Now he and his daughter work at the site but in a completely different industry (listen from about 56 mins).
Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums Flickr collections of Sunderland Launch Photos