Building for the world

From its early stirrings, the North-East was hugely associated with the Industrial Revolution and its regional iron, steel and coal industries have been one of the most consistent barometers of prosperity and depression.

From its early stirrings, the North-East was hugely associated with the Industrial Revolution and its regional iron, steel and coal industries have been one of the most consistent barometers of prosperity and depression. We take a look at the highs and lows of some of those industries which have proudly played their part in the region's development and heritage.


The arrival of the Aberdeen-built John Garrow in the Tyne is often regarded as the inspiration for iron shipbuilding.

The first iron ship built in the North-East was the Star, a small passenger steamer built by TD Marshall of South Shields in 1839 to ply between Newcastle and North Shields. Almost immediately, Messrs Coutts and Company of Walker began building iron vessels, too.

Their first, Prince Albert, was launched from a site now occupied by the recently-closed Swan Hunter Group on September 23 1842 and was used as a passenger ship on the Thames.

John Coutts, who came from Aberdeen, was an extraordinarily far-sighted shipbuilder. He built not only the Prince Albert but in 1844 the QED, a small sailing vessel of 271 tonnes which altered the course of shipbuilding forever. She was subsequently fitted with auxiliary engines made by Messrs Hawthorn and was the first screw-propelled ship built on the Tyne. Most importantly, however, she was the first ship to be built with double bottoms in which to carry water ballast.

The development of iron was given a tremendous boost in 1852 when a Newcastle colliery owner decided to build an iron screw collier. Thirty-year-old Charles Mark Palmer felt it was the only way to match the growing competition from coalfields in the Midlands. The John Bower was launched at Jarrow on June 30 1852 at a cost of £10,000 - as against £1,000 for a sailing collier of that time. On her first journey to London she was loaded with 650 tonnes of coal in four hours; she took 48 hours to reach the capital; discharged her cargo, and returned in two days - meaning she had done as much work in a week as a sailing vessel would have done in two months.

The 1840s were a very formative period in North-East shipbuilding and there was a proliferation of new firms, though the use of this metal was not to become universal until many years later. Iron construction and steam propulsion arrived almost simultaneously on the Wear between 1845 and 1852 but the last wooden ship was not built there until 1880 and the last sailing ship in 1893.

In the late 1860s the building of warships started at the Elswick works of Sir WG Armstrong, transferring to Walker in 1911 as the size of the vessels greatly increased. During the same period the firms which were to form Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson were beginning to develop. In 1860 John Wigham Richardson bought the yard later to be named the Neptune yard at Wallsend, adding an engine works. In 1872, CS Swan & Hunter Ltd had established a shipyard at Wallsend and in 1903 the two firms amalgamated specifically to bid for the prestigious contract to build the Mauretania for Cunard. Their bid was successful, and the new company, Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd, went on to build what was to become, in its day, the most famous ocean-going liner in the world.

RMS Mauretania was launched from Wallsend on Tyne on September 20, 1906, by the Duchess of Roxburghe, watched by huge cheering crowds. At the time she was the largest and fastest ship in the world. Particularly notable was her steam turbine propulsion, a revolutionary development.

Early makers of ships engines emerged from general engineering firms - for example, George Clark on the Wear, which concentrated on marine work from 1854 onwards. In 1865 North East Marine Engineering Co developed at the South Docks, Sunderland, and in 1938 both firms amalgamated with Richardson Westgarth & Co Ltd, a Hartlepool company, thus building up a specialised marine engineering firm with plants on Tyne, Wear and Tees. William Doxford started building marine engines in Sunderland in 1878 and the firm developed into a wide range of steam, turbine and, later, diesel engine manufacture.

The growing demand for tonnage also involved simpler types of construction. Between 1924 and 1930 almost one million tonnes of tankers were built in the North-East, some 159 ships, which represented almost two-thirds of those built in the whole country and virtually one-third of the world tanker output.

In the inter-war period, the building of warships - a specialisation of the Tyne - fell away to only about one-eighth the level of the rearmament years of 1907-1913. This situation improved after 1937 on the approach of the Second World War in which, as in the 1914-18 war, the shipyards building and repair work was prodigious.

Problems in British shipbuilding were slow to reveal themselves after the war. Shipyards had been working near capacity through the war and there had been little time for reorganisation and modernisation; consequently the risk was that there would be surplus capacity and a generally inadequate level of modern technology and layout of yards.

In the immediate post-war years, to the end of 1951, replacement of world tonnage lost in wartime and a phenomenal demand for tanker tonnage ensured steady order books - plus foreign competition had not effectively set in. But from 1952 to 1957 the situation deteriorated. Order books remained fairly full but new contracts began to decline and orders for foreign owners fell away sharply as firm delivery times couldn't be guaranteed through serious labour stoppages.

The years 1958-64 were the most difficult known in North-East shipbuilding since the 1930s, depression in the world shipping coinciding with intensive competition from Japanese and European yards. Just as in the steel industry the dip in demand took place just as the effects of heavy investment in modernisation were beginning to be felt, an unfortunate coincidence. Order books declined catastrophically which led to gradual closures over the next 30 years or so - though some peaks were reached with he launch of the likes of the supertanker Esso Northumbria in 1969 and the development of yards into off-shore construction sites. Latter years saw the production of a series of anti-submarine frigates, the Fort George, and the royal research vessel James Clark Ross. The last vessel to be built on the Tyne was the cross-Tyne ferry, Pride of the Tyne, launched in 1993.

The end had been a long time coming. Jaap Kroese, owner of the Swan Hunter shipyard, says the business is effectively finished. Mr Kroese has sold the Wallsend yard's iconic cranes to an Indian company and says he is now looking to sell off the land on the banks of the Tyne, too.

Sunderland in the driving seat

Car manufacture

Nissan and the Government signed an agreement to build a car plant at the former Sunderland Airfield in February 1984.

The North-East had been going through a period of industrial decline, with the closure of most of the shipyards on the Tyne and the Wear, and the closure of many coal mines on the once prosperous Durham coalfield. The high unemployment this caused meant Nissan had a large, eager, manufacturing-skilled workforce to drawn upon.

The company became known as Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd.

In July 1986, phase 1 the first Nissan Bluebird rolled off the production line (the car can be seen at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher officially opened the plant alongside Nissan president Yutaka Kume in September 1986.

In May 1990, phase 2 of the plant construction was completed, the Bluebird model was retired and the Primera went into production. In August 1992, production of the Micra began as the plant began to produce two models simultaneously. It was an instant success, quickly voted European Car of the Year 1993. The Primera model was revised in 1995 and production began in January 1996. In January 2000, Nissan became a three-model plant for the first time with the production of the Almera.

In late 2004 Nissan UK won the contract to built the Note, a five-door hatchback, then in February 2005, it announced the production version of the award-winning, 4x4 crossover Qashqai concept car. Note began production in January 2006. This increased production meant that by 2007, Nissan would be producing more than 400,000 vehicle a year from Sunderland.

Digging deep to fire up world

Coal mining

North-East industry had been developing rapidly from the early 1860s and the local iron and steel industries put heavy demands on the reserves of coking coal whilst the needs for steam coal and bunker coals for shipping were virtually insatiable.

New pits were opened and expanded in response to improved technology in extraction.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the thicker and richer seams of hard coals in West Durham had been depleted; in South West Durham flooding had greatly added to mining costs. In the hinterland of Blyth in Northumberland, on the other hand, the working of steam and household coals continued to gather pace and many new pits were established. During the early 20th Century some of the largest collieries in the North-East were opened in East Durham.

After the First World War the total output of coal declined and the industry began to contract through closures with concentration on production at fewer, larger pits. The depression years of the early 1930s hastened the decline of many marginal collieries and there was a sharp rise in the outward migration of unemployed miners.

The most striking post-war change in consumption of coal in the North-East was the growth of thermal power generation, with its most rapid increase coming in the early 1960s after completion of the electricity super-grid and the commissioning of new generating stations on the Tyne and at Blyth.

The last deep mine in the North-East, Ellington Colliery in Northumberland, closed on January 26, 2005.

Coal mining was an occupation fraught with danger and accidents were frequent. The Newcastle Journal carried regular news stories of individual accidents, for example, that of James William Moss, Nov 5 1930, aged 42, killed by a fall of stone. Major incidents, caused by gas explosions and collapses, made harrowing reading. As mines got deeper to search for productive coal seams, safety became more of an issue. Humphry Davy and George Stephenson had developed the safety lamp in 1815. The cage for moving miners underground was introduced in 1834 and in 1862 an act of Parliament made it compulsory for every colliery to have two shafts. In 1867 John Dalglish, general manager of Earl Vane's Durham collieries, organised a system of voluntary inspection of pits which was made compulsory by an Act in 1887.

North-East colliery disasters:

1833: 47 miners die at Springfield Colliery

1835: 102 die at Wallsend

1841: 32 die at Willington

1844: 95 die at Haswell

1845: 39 die at Jarrow Colliery

1849: 31 die at Hebburn

1855: 28 die at Elemore, near Hetton

1860: 76 die at Burradon

1862: 204 die at Hartley Colliery, North Tyneside

1866: 24 die at Pelton

1880: 164 miners and 181 pit ponies die at Seaham

1882: 74 die at Trimdon Grange

1882: 35 die at Tudhoe

1886: 28 die at Elemore

1896: 20 die at Brancepeth

1899: 6 die at Brandon

1906: 24 die at Wingate

1908: 14 die at Washington Glebe

1909: 168 die at West Stanley

1942: 13 die at Murton Colliery

1947: 21 die at Louisa Colliery

1951: 81 die at Easington

and how we got everyone moving


The onward march of steam railways which father and son George and Robert Stephenson had begun in the 1820s involved them in the construction of other railways across Britain. Locomotive fever was followed by railway-building mania.

In 1823 Robert Stephenson opened the Forth Banks loco works in Newcastle, followed on an adjacent site in 1831 by the works of R and W Hawthorn. The 1840s were productive. Head Wrightson was established in foundry and general engineering at Thornaby on Tees and in 1847 William George Armstrong started the Elswick works, later to become one of the largest engineering firms in Britain.

The Stephensons continued to progress in the burgeoning world of railways. They were appointed technical advisers for the creation of Belgium's railway network which the Forth Street Works supplied locomotives to. In the 1830s the works also turned out some of the earliest engines for lines in Russia, the US, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

However, railways needed bridges and it was as a bridge builder that Robert Stephenson was to earn lasting personal fame. He designed the superb two-deck High Level Bridge across the Tyne between Gateshead and Newcastle which brought the railway from the south into Newcastle for the first time. Previously the line had terminated at Gateshead. And, in August 1850, his Royal Border Bridge across the River Tweed at Berwick was opened by Queen Victoria.

Newcastle's Forth Street Works continued to build engines for the rest of the 19th Century. However, by 1900, orders for locomotives were now so numerous and many of the engines were so large that the factory was becoming too small. This led to the company building a new works at Darlington.

The name of Stephenson eventually returned to Newcastle. In 1937 the locomotive department of Hawthorn Leslie merged with Stephenson's to become Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns Ltd. While the Darlington works concentrated mainly on larger locomotives, Newcastle's Forth Banks manufactured small ones, gaining an enviable reputation for industrial railway engines.


The manufacture of paints and pigments was a mainstay of traditional North-East industry and was at one time vertically linked with shipbuilding from sites in Newcastle and Felling on Tyne.

The chemical industry today, like steelmaking, is most closely associated with Teesside, but the early industries were centred around Tyneside. The most important of these was the making of alkali, a versatile soluble mineral salt - when mixed with fat it could be used to make soap and, combined with lime and sand, it could be used for glass manufacture.

Alkali works were established at Walker in Newcastle in 1807 where the manufacture of bleaching powder also began - and the Losh Brothers company soon manufactured half the soda in England.


Sunderland and Tyneside were noted glass manufacturing centres from the 17th Century. By 1827, two-fifths of all English glass was made around Newcastle and in 1845 South Shields was making more plate glass than anywhere else in the country. James Hartley's Wear Glass Works opened in Sunderland in 1836 and 30 years later, one third of the nation's sheet glass was supplied from there.

The rise and fall of steel


The steel industry grew rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s using the acid and basic Bessemer processes and the acid open-hearth method. The bulk of employment in iron and steel production was concentrated on Teesside where the integrated steelworks of Dorman Long and South Durham formed the greatest steel sector in the country.

The early history of North-East iron-making, until around 1850, was concentrated on sites usually on or near its coalfields and in iron ore areas. At Newcastle, the Walker ironworks was well established in the early 1830s, whilst in the following decade the Tow Law blast furnaces in County Durham began to work Weardale ores. At Consett, the Derwent Iron Company began iron-making on a site which it did continuously until its closure in 1980. The Consett Iron Company was established in 1840 by a small group of entrepreneurs who introduced the first blast furnaces. Over the next 100 years, the town became one of the world's leading steel-making towns, and the name Consett was synonymous with iron and steel - the town that made the steel for Blackpool Tower and Britain's nuclear submarines.

In 1980 the death knell sounded for the furnaces, and the Consett works closed with the loss of 3,700 jobs. It was a devastating blow, not least because the unemployment rate in Consett was double the national average at 15%, hitting 36% in 1981, and the demolition of the works led to a massive hole in the heart of the town.

The last steel ingot from the Consett ironworks was made into a cross and is kept at St Mary's RC Church, Blackhill.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer