Shipbuilding on Tyne and Wear becomes Memory of World

The industrial might that forged much of the North East's identity and made the region famous is today officially ranked alongside the Domesday Book in historical importance

Shipbuilding on the Tyne and Wear rund deep in the local psyche
Shipbuilding on the Tyne and Wear rund deep in the local psyche

The industrial might that forged much of the North East's identity and made the region famous is today officially ranked alongside the Domesday Book in historical importance.

Unesco’s UK Memory of the World Register is an online catalogue created to promote the greatest of the nation’s heritage.

Entries on the UK register are awarded the globally-recognised Memory of the World status and made accessible internationally.

The latest batch of inscriptions, or entries, are revealed today and include the Domesday Book and the personal archives of Winston Churchill, the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, First World War supermo Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the Cumbrian journal of William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy.

And the North East has two of the new entries on the register.

They include vast collections of material from the shipyards of the Tyne and the Wear.

These are held by Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) which, as the yards closed, raced to secure material before it was lost.

Only in the past few years has TWAM won funding to begin cataloguing the mass of information, ranging from shipyard board minutes to ships’ plans, production records and photographs.

For more than two centuries the yards of the Tyne and the Wear turned out huge numbers of vessels, from great warships such as Ark Royal to liners such as Mauretania, plus tankers and cargo ships for the world’s commercial fleets.

The other entry is the archives of Robert Stephenson and Company, whose South Street works in Newcastle made steam locomotives for the world. Last month The Journal reported on the sale of a souvenir marking a dinner for 800 company employees to celebrate the Royal assent in 1845 for the building of the Newcastle-Berwick Railway line, which saw Robert Stephenson become engineer in chief for the High Level Bridge, Newcastle Central Station and the Royal Border Bridge across the River Tweed.

The South Street building survives and is part of the huge Stephenson Quarter redevelopment plans.

On the shipyard front, TWAM was only able to catalogue the records of Tyneside’s Swan Hunter yard in 2008-09 and the Sunderland shipyards in 2011-12 because of grants from the National Archives Cataloguing Grants Programme.

Work by archivist Alan Hayward on Sunderland yards showed that in both 1905 and 1907, William Doxford & Sons Ltd built the greatest tonnage of any British shipbuilder.

Many thousands were employed in the yards. The 1911 Census shows that one in five Sunderland men was directly employed in shipbuilding.

This was against a national average of less than 1% of all working males involved in the industry.

“In these circumstances it’s easy to understand how a depression in the industry could dramatically affect an area. You only have to think of the damage done to the local economy when Palmers shipyard in Jarrow closed in 1934, leading to the Jarrow March in 1936,” said Alan.

There were also the allied industries, such as ship repairers, marine engineers and ships’ outfitters. Shipbuilding had an enormous influence locally in demand for engines, boilers, deck machinery such as winches, windlasses and cranes, made by companies such as Clarke Chapman of Gateshead, and nautical instruments from firms such as Sunderland’s James Morton & Co.

“Then there is the belief that the word Mackem comes from the Sunderland shipyard saying that ‘we mak’em (the ships) and they tak’em (the buyers)’,” said Alan.

“Shipbuilding on the Tyne and the Wear has a huge heritage,” he said, “and its inclusion on the Memory of the world Register is entirely justified.”

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