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The rise and fall of Tyne’s shipyards

WITHIN a lifetime, the unthinkable happened along the River Tyne. The noise and seemingly ceaseless activity of the shipyards which lined the riverbanks has been replaced by relative silence, green parkland, new homes and commercial and leisure developments.

A new DVD documents the rise and fall of the region’s shipyards. Tony Henderson reflects on a tide of change along the Tyne.

WITHIN a lifetime, the unthinkable happened along the River Tyne. The noise and seemingly ceaseless activity of the shipyards which lined the riverbanks has been replaced by relative silence, green parkland, new homes and commercial and leisure developments. But for many years, shipbuilding and repairing, and heavy engineering, were the cornerstones of the economy, and social and cultural life on Tyneside.

Now a flavour of the shipyard era has been recreated on a DVD from the Northern Region Film and Television Archive.

With bases on Teesside and at Tyne Wear Archives Service in Newcastle, NRFTA collects, preserves and provides access to moving images of life and work in the region.

The collection now totals around 38,000 items, including TV news footage, industrial training and promotional films, advertisements, official information films and home movies.

The new DVD, Tyneside Tales: Shipyards, Steel and Society costs £12 and is described by the archive’s Dr Brian Barker as a “rise and fall story”.

He says: “In the 20th Century, one of the key elements in the development of what can be called the Tyneside identity was the dominance of heavy engineering, with the employment of thousands of people.

“This sense of Tyneside as a unique place with an equally unique identity, often seen as a product of the area’s industrial history, has encouraged artists and writers to try and capture its essence in different ways, including through film and television.

“Mass employment in shipbuilding and heavy engineering formed the economic basis for social and cultural development on Tyneside.”

The DVD includes film of the opening of coal staithes in the Jarrow-Hebburn area in 1936 by the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. There are the launches of the Katsina Palm at Swan Hunter’s yard in 1957, the British Venture at Hawthorn Leslie in 1961 and the MV Clark Maxwell in 1966, plus the 250,000-tonne supertanker Esso Northumbria in 1969 by the 18-year-old Princess Anne.

Also on view is the people side of industry, with footage of a Clarke Chapman works sports day in Dunston, Gateshead, in 1951, complete with such innocent pleasures as egg and spoon and skipping races.

There is poignant coverage of the immediate aftermath of the closure of Vickers Scotswood works in Newcastle, when workers gathered in the nearby and now demolished Robin Adair pub to sing The Blaydon Races and drink to workmates they would never see again.

One remarkably eloquent worker takes the camera on a dumper truck tour of the factory site, saying: “That’s 140 years of history ending with this demolition.”

Tyneside Tales: Shipyards, Steel and Society is available at outlets in Newcastle including The Discovery Museum; The Back Page in St Andrews Street; and Millers Bookshop and W Robinsons in Grainger Market; and also at Borders Books, Gateshead. Or contact Laura Towns, Northern Region Film and Television Archive, School of Arts and Media, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough, tel: (01642) 342923.

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Distinguished history of naval service

FOR more than a century, Swan Hunter on the Tyne was a main builder of British naval vessels, turning out over 200 ships.

The yard’s first Admiralty order was in 1900 for a floating dock for Bermuda.

Its first warship contract in 1909 was for the destroyer HMS Hope. Until 1920, Swan’s was never without a destroyer contract.

The Swan’s story is told in a new book by Tynemouth-based Ian Buxton, a naval architect and chartered surveyor, who lectures in marine transport at Newcastle University and also happens to be vice-president of the World Ship Society.

In 1915, the light cruiser Comus was the first large warship to be built by Swan’s. At the end of the First World War, the company had constructed two cruisers, one monitor, five subs, 30 destroyers, 16 sloops and five naval auxiliaries.

In October 1915, the workforce stood at 7,500.

The Swan’s battleship HMS Anson entered service in 1942 and the Second World War total of 81 warships included two carriers, three cruisers, 28 destroyers, six escorts, 27 landing vessels and 14 auxiliaries.

The 1960s saw the surface-to-air missile destroyers London, Norfolk and Bristol and in 1971 the Type-42 Newcastle and Glasgow followed.

The carriers Illustrious and Ark Royal were the products of the 1980s. Now the cranes are coming down.

Swan Hunter Built Warships, by Ian Buxton (Maritime Books, £17.99).

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