Exhibition tells of impact of First World War on North Tyneside

The exhibition is part of the wider Heritage Lottery Fund supported Wor Life 1914-18, Tyne & Wear in the First World War

The wartime women's workforce at the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Company
The wartime women's workforce at the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Company

How today’s friend can turn into tomorrow’s enemy – and vice versa – is one of the lessons from history.

The last few days have seen the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the creation of George Stephenson’s locomotive Blucher.

It was named in honour and gratitude after Gebhard von Blucher, the Prussian general whose intervention at Waterloo turned the battle against Napoleon.

But on January 23, 1915, Blucher was the enemy.

The German warship was one of a force of battlecruisers which fought their British counterparts at the Battle of Dogger Bank.

One of the leading ships in the British battlecruiser fleet was HMS Lion, which opened fire first. The German vessels concentrated on Lion, which sustained 16 hits.

Blucher in turn became the target for most of the British force, and was sunk.

Lion fired 243 shots, scoring four hits, one on Blucher. Lion was taken to the Tyne for extensive repairs and did not rejoin the fleet until April.

A piece from Lion, showing the entry point of a shell from Blucher, is one of the items at an exhibition which opens tomorrow at Segedunum Roman fort and museum in Wallsend.

Coal, Ships & Zeppelins: North Tyneside in the First World War explores the story of the role played by concentrated industrial production in North Tyneside. It will run until April next year.

During the First World War there were eight shipyards on the north bank of the Tyne between Howdon and Walker.

Tyne yards built 80% of the warships constructed in the North East.

On show is a war work badge given to shipyard workers to prevent accusations of cowardice for not serving in the forces.

In 1914 there were also 13 coal mines in the area. In 1914 there were 620 men and boys working in Preston pit at North Shields.

In the war, 393 from the pit served, with 59 being killed and 113 wounded – a casualty rate of 44%.

At the outbreak of war, the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Company, which had made the steam turbines for the liner Mauretania, was one of the largest and best-equipped engine works in the country.

It supplied turbine machinery for 27 destroyers, four cruisers, two submarines and the battleships Superb, Orion, Malaya, Queen Elizabeth and Furious.

The section from HMS Lion showing where a shell from the German battlecruiser Blucher impacted
The section from HMS Lion showing where a shell from the German battlecruiser Blucher impacted

In 1916 women were taken on by the company to do jobs previously held by men who had joined up.

The women became fitters’ mates, machine operators, sand and brass moulders, core makers, dressers, engravers and store workers.

They worked in the galvanising shop, and with the coppersmith and patternmakers, and were doing power plant work and light plating.

The Neptune Works forged the bodies of more than 270,00 six-inch shells.

Smiths Dock in North Shields operated seven docks and two pontoon docks, with a floating dock at Jarrow Slake. The company repaired 342 warships and 3,679 merchant ships during the war.

In 1915 the captain of HMS Warspite wrote to the company’s Launcelot Smith to praise the quality of the repair work on the ship.

Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson repaired 307 merchant ships and 249 warships. The yard’s liner Mauretania, holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, served as a troop carrier and hospital ship.

She was clad in dazzle paint, a system developed by artist Norman Wilkinson to confuse submarines trying to get a fix on targets.

X-lighters, the craft designed for the 1915 Gallipoli landings, were built in all the smaller yards along the north bank of the Tyne.

William Dobson & Co, of Wincomblee, turned out eight, with a total of 155 being built in the North East. They were the first purpose-built armoured landing craft with a drop down ramp.

North Tyneside also built P boats, which were simple craft designed to relieve destroyers of patrol and escort work, and were given a hard stern for ramming submarines.

Although the war at sea dominated North Tyneside, the exhibition includes the remains of a bomb, on loan from the Imperial War Museum, dropped by a Zeppelin airship on Wallsend.

In the raid in 1915, the airship also bombed several Northumberland villages and Hebburn before flying over Tynemouth and out to sea.

One incendiary bomb crashed trough the roof of a house in Station Road in Wallsend.

The occupant Mrs Robinson was bathing her three-year-old daughter when drops of burning oil came through the ceiling, setting fire to the kitchen and singeing her hair.

The exhibition also tells the story of Rowland Hodge, manager of the Northumberland Shipbuilidng Company in Howdon, who in April 1918 was charged, with his wife, with food hoarding. His home in Gosforth in Newcastle was searched and 350Ibs of flour and other food was found. The couple were fined £600 with £100 costs.

Ian Whitehead, curator of the exhibition, says: “It shows how North Tyneside was an engine of war industries which kept the British fleets in a powerful position to keep supplies coming in.”

Geoff Woodward, museum manager for North and South Tyneside Museums at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums says: “Swan Hunter’s and the other shipyards are very much a part of the dynamic story of the landscape in which the remains of the Roman fort of Segedunum sits.

“During the First World War the shipyards along this stretch of river were working flat out. The social impact was significant too, with many women and teenage girls and boys being employed as a result of the labour shortage.”

The museum in Wallsend, site of one of the most excavated Roman forts along Hadrian’ Wall, sits on the edge of the Tyne overlooking the area where much of this activity took place.

The building, now used as museum offices, was erected in 1914 as a staff institute for Swan Hunter’s workers.

When a roll of honour was produced to honour the men from Swan Hunter’s who had fought in the First World War, it was placed in the staff institute. The site of the current shop and café was occupied by a shooting range.

The exhibition is part of the wider Heritage Lottery Fund supported Wor Life 1914-18, Tyne & Wear in the First World War, which is Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ First World War project, delivered in partnership with Sunderland Museums and Heritage.


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