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British Industrial History

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John Readhead and Sons

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April 1952. SS Crofter.

John Readhead and Sons of West Dock, South Shields were shipbuilders

John Readhead had been a millwright but changed direction aged 32 when he trained as a shipwright in the Lawe yard of Thomas Marshall. He did this for 15 years before starting his own company.

1865 Established as a partnership between John Readhead and John Softley as Readhead and Softley near South Shields harbour in an area known as the Lawe. Readhead & Softley started trading on 1st March. The Company completed a small collier brig, and an iron screw steamer. The barque Lizzie Leslie was the first ship ever classed by Lloyd’s register as 100A1.

1870 The steam tug Washington was built and worked the river until 1952 after 82 years service. Many other ships produced by the yard had phenomenally long working lives of 80-90 years.

1872 Readhead’s partnership with Softley was dissolved. 87 small craft had been built.

1876 Side lever grasshopper engine by J. Readhead in Newcastle paddle tug 'President' photographed by George Watkins in 1952[1]

1876 Side lever grasshopper engine in Newcastle paddle tug 'President' photographed by George Watkins in 1952[2]

1881 John Readhead moved upriver to the western part of South Shields next to Tyne Dock as the Lawe yard had become too small. The Company had a long association with Edward Hain of St. Ives, Cornwall which had begun at the Lawe Yard and continued at the West Yard. Hain commissioned 85 tramps over a period of 84 years. It is considered to be one of the greatest shipowner/shipbuilder links of British maritime history.

1894 Alderman John Readhead J.P. died on 9th March aged 76 and his four sons, James, Robert, John and William carried on the family business. James was in charge of the shipyard and Robert was in charge of the engine works. It employed 1,300 men at this time. [3]

1909 Private company.

1909 John Readhead and Sons was incorporated with £300,000 in shares mainly held by the brothers.

1914 Directory: Listed as Ship Builders (Steel) of West Dock Corstorphine Town and West Holborn, South Shields. [4]

1914 Iron shipbuilders, engine and boiler builders, graving dock owners. Speciality: merchant steamships. Employees 1,500 to 1,800. [5]

The Yard came under Admiralty control during the Great War and 20 tramps were constructed including six WAR ‘B’ types and the refuelling tanker Oletta which was the only deep-sea tanker ever built by the yard.

1917 Hains, who had been a key customer, were taken over by P&O and they began using other yards for their ships.

1922 James Readhead was knighted.

1926 Frank Strick, owner of the Strick Line, began a long association with the Readheads, eventually becoming their main customer with 44 orders between 1927 and 1931.

1930 Sir James Readhead died on 18th March aged 77. Sir James Halder Readhead succeeded him as Chairman.

1931 The whole workforce was laid off except for apprentices during the Great Depression. The yard remained effectively closed for five years until 1936. The repair yard managed to keep going during the Depression, aiding the Company's cash flow.

1936 Strick Line placed an order for two cargo liners and orders began to pick back up again with five orders for cargo-liners from Bank Line Ltd, four from Strick Line and a tramp for Sir Arthur Sutherland.

1937 The Company acquired the old dry docks of Smiths Dock Co, which meant that the building berths were separated from the repair yard. During the War the repair yard was very busy dealing with damage to vessels from torpedoes and mines. No. 2 dry dock suffered severe buckling of the dock gates, caused by a German air raid on the night of April 9th/10th 1941. This can still be seen today.

1940 Sir James H. Readhead died and was succeeded by Christopher Southall (Chairman) and Harold Towers, son-in-law of Sir James as Managing Director.

WWII Between 1939-1945 the Company produced 31 tramps, two special repair ships for the Navy and two coastal tankers. In addition six ships were completed for private owners.

1945-1966: 66 cargo liners and tramps were produced for well-known ship owners. The yard developed a new design known as a "strengthened raised quarter-decker", which featured a five hold, engines-aft design suited for the heavy-grain and sugar trades.

1965 the yard was modernised which led to further orders.

1961 Ship builders and repairers, also boiler and engine makers. [6]

1968 The Readhead yard was taken over by Swan Hunter and Tyne Shipbuilders on 1st January as a result of the merger recommendations of the Geddes Report.

1977 The Tyne Yards were nationalised on 1st July, becoming part of British Shipbuilders Corporation. The South Shields yard concentrated on repair work as part of Tyne Shiprepair.

1982 The South Shields yard was closed by British Shipbuilders in 1982. It was then leased back to the Readhead workforce who had formed their own company.

1984 The company got into financial difficulties and was taken over by Tyne Dock Engineering Co.

The shipbuilding yard has since been stripped but is still in business as McNulty Marine for North Sea Oil modification work.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain by George Watkins. Vol 10
  1. Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain by George Watkins. Vol 10
  2. Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain by George Watkins. Vol 10
  3. The Engineer 1894/03/16 p234
  4. Kelly's Directory of Durham, 1914 p771
  5. 1914 Whitakers Red Book
  6. 1961 Dun and Bradstreet KBE