Tribute to shipbuilding on River Wear launched at National Glass Centre

A mighty tribute to one of Wearside’s great lost industries has been launched at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland

The Ships That Pass artwork at Sunderland's National Glass Centre
The Ships That Pass artwork at Sunderland's National Glass Centre

Ships That Pass, referencing 600 years of shipbuilding on the Wear, is the work of North East photographer John Kippin and it covers the building’s entire glass facade.

But it owes much to the work of another man - model-maker Fred Gooch who, for years and for his own amusement, faithfully recreated the mighty vessels built in the local yards.

John, who is professor in photography at the University of Sunderland, photographed some of the beautifully crafted models which Fred keeps at his home in Pallion.

The photographs were then blown up and printed on clear vinyl by a specialist Newcastle-based firm called The Rip.

Nine of them were then attached to the glass panels - each measuring 12ft by 9ft - which make up the river-facing frontage of the National Glass Centre, which occupies the site of one of the old Wearside shipyards.

Mark Pilton, left and Dominic Graeme at making the artwork ready
Mark Pilton, left and Dominic Graeme at making the artwork ready

As the last of the panels was installed yesterday, John said it had been great working with Fred.

“I think he feels, like me, that a lot of people nowadays don’t appreciate the scale of shipbuilding that once took place on the Wear - just how enormous it was.

“At the University of Sunderland we have lots of working class kids, first generation university kids, but they’ve no sense of it. It’s like something old blokes talk about and that, in a way, is why I called the piece Ships That Pass.

“While it references shipbuilding I hope it will also remind people of the social context, that whole communities grew up around these activities. Now, particularly in the case of shipbuilding, there’s hardly anything left to see.”

John said that while the images of the ships were largely monochrome, a touch of colour was a reminder of stained glass, a product of another great Wearside industry.

Fred Gooch said that in the early 1970s he used to work at Coles Cranes, beside the River Wear, which is when he first took an interest in the ships taking shape in the yards.

He made a couple of models but the hobby only started to consume him when he joined the workforce at the Pallion yard of Sunderland Shipbuilders.

“I was working in the buying department but I had the drawing office on one side and the design office on the other side.

“The first few ships I made, I used to take them into the office and they’d say, ‘No, that’s not right’. I knew if they had no complaints then I was getting somewhere.”

Fred, who is now 65 and retired, said some of his models could take up to two years to build.

“I used to run out of kitchen table. My daughters are grown up and gone now but when they were little my wife used to say, ‘Fred, leave the ships at least until the bairns are asleep’.”

When the yard closed in 1988 Fred moved to Barrow-in-Furness and spent two years working on a giant Perspex model of a Trident nuclear sub, 10ft in diametre and 300ft long.

He doesn’t know what became of that but he still has about 20 of his Sunderland-built vessels displayed in a bedroom at home.

Ships That Pass is part of The Social: Encountering Photography, a festival of photography which begins today and takes place at various locations in Sunderland, Newcastle, Washington and Durham.


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