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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter XI

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Shipbuilding is a trade barometer. Busy shipyards and engine works are generally a sign of all-round prosperity. Our national strength, besides, is largely dependent on our maritime supremacy, and it is by supplying British shipowners with cheap tonnage of the latest type, specially adapted to the trades in which the vessels are to compete, and which can be run at a low cost, that our shipbuilders enable the nation to maintain its supremacy in the ocean-carrying trade of the world.

The prosperity of our steel and iron works, too, is largely dependent on the demand for the steel plates and sections required for shipbuilding. Quite a third of the steel turned out by our mills has been used in normal times in the construction of ships, a proportion which is sufficient either in its maintenance or its fall to make all the difference between good and bad trade to our iron and steel works, as well as to our collieries. Shipbuilding, too, is associated with other industries, which, whilst apparently separate, are in reality a part of it. Among these are branches of general engineering such as the production of electrical gear, winches, refrigerating plant and other auxiliary machinery, wire rope, chain cables and so forth. Not merely marine engineering, therefore, but other departments of engineering as well, must rise or sink with shipbuilding activity or depression. The connection between shipbuilding and its ancillary trades is, indeed, so close that it is of vital importance to all the heavy industries that we should maintain our supremacy as the leading shipowners as well as shipbuilders of the world. Everything, therefore, which tends, through foreign competition or otherwise, to restrict the volume of our overseas trade must, by diminishing the demand for new tonnage, exert a prejudicial influence on our metallurgical and related industries.

In order to secure the utmost economy of production, our shipyards and engine works have been used to avail themselves largely of the cheap materials with which the Continent is always ready to supply British manufacturers. Large quantities of pig iron from the North-east Coast, indeed, have been in normal times regularly exported to the Continent, to be returned to us in the shape of more finished products. On the North-east Coast foreign shafting, equal to British, for marine engines, but at two-thirds of the price, has always been used in considerable quantities. Steel castings, too, come within the same category. As to plates and angles, the actual supplies from abroad have been until lately comparatively small; but low foreign quotations have kept prices down at home. There is no doubt that steel-makers in Sheffield, Middlesbrough and elsewhere must suffer through this outside competition, although the shipbuilder, the maker of marine engines and the country at large gain on the whole.

Going back some thirty years, we find that, excluding vessels built on the Great Lakes in the United States, the world's output of mercantile tonnage in 1893 was 1,026,741 tons. Of this total, the United Kingdom built a proportion of nearly 82 per cent. Of the 1,461,671 tons of three years later, our proportion had fallen to a little over 79 per cent. In 1899 the world's annual tonnage had almost doubled the figures of 1893, being 2,043,568, of which our proportion was a little over 69 per cent. In 1902 the British proportion sank to 60.82 per cent. of a total world's output of 2,346,941 tons, though in 1904 of 1,938,847 tons we accounted for 62.1 per cent.

Since the war our proportion has still further fallen away. In 1921, indeed, it dropped to 35.4 per cent.; but that year was exceptional in its display of shipbuilding activity abroad, especially in coast ports of the United States and of the British Dominions. In 1925 we had recovered to a position represented by 49.4 per cent., or about half of the world's production, i.e. 1,084,633 tons, out of a total of 2,193,404 tons, including vessels built on the Great Lakes. In 1926, out of a total tonnage of 1,674,927 tons, our output fell to 639,568 tons, while that of Germany decreased by 225,826 tons below her output in the previous year. These figures show that the foreigner is gradually learning to build for himself, though, thanks in part to his helping us with low-priced materials, we were able, until after the war, to build cheaper than he and give him better bargains in new tonnage than he could find elsewhere.

The geographical positions of our chief shipbuilding centres are sharply defined. The North-east Coast, comprising the Tyne, Wear, Tees, the Hartlepools and the Humber, has always been a centre of shipbuilding activity from the earliest times, and has taken the first place in output, followed in succession by the Clyde, Belfast, Barrow, the Thames and some minor districts such as Burntisland and Dundee. The Tyne, which claims to rank as the cradle of the shipbuilding industry, still holds the first place alike as to volume of tonnage, its variety and importance. There are 115 building berths in its shipyards. From its banks have been launched battleships, armoured cruisers and the swiftest destroyers for our own and other nations, besides some of the largest cargo and intermediate passenger steamers afloat for the mercantile marine.

Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co

Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co, of Jarrow, whose iron, steel and shipbuilding works at full capacity employ 10,000 hands, have, before the Great War, built some of the earliest destroyers and some of the most powerful battleships and cruisers of the British Navy, including the Revenge, the Hercules, the Lord Nelson, the Russell and the Queen Mary. This firm was founded by the late Sir Charles Mark Palmer, Bart., M.P., and afterwards turned into a public company. He was the first Chairman, with Henry Davis Pochin as Deputy-Chairman. Sir John Milburn, Bart., and the writer of these pages (then Charles McLaren, M.P.), subsequently occupied the Chair, and later Lord (then Sir Christopher) Furness, Bart., Mr. G. Muir Ritchie and Mr. C. Spencer. At various times there have sat on the Board of Directors Sir Alfred M. Palmer, Bart., General Sir Andrew Clarke, Rear-Admiral Cleveland, Lord Northbourne and Admiral Sir Archibald Douglas. The present Board includes the Hon. Robert James, Mr. A. B. Gowan, Mr. Charles Bryan, Hon. Henry D. McLaren, C.B.E., Mr. C. E. Spencer, Mr. J. M. Macfarlane, the Rt. Hon. Edward Show, formerly Secretary of State for the Home Department, and the writer of these pages. Mr. A. B. Gowan is now the Managing Director. The firm is building a 10,000-ton cruiser, the York, for the British Government.

Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson

Across the river, Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, whose Chairman is Sir George Hunter, built the Mauretania, one of the two subsidised 25-knot Cunarders, then the largest and swiftest passenger liner in the world. She is still the fastest afloat. She was engined with the turbines invented by the Hon. Sir Charles Parsons, O.M., and manufactured by the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co, whose works are close at hand.

Armstrong Whitworth

Above the bridge at Newcastle are the Elswick Works of Sir William G. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. This great firm was originally established by the late Lord Armstrong in 1847 for the manufacture of hydraulic plant. Sir Andrew Noble joined the Company, which afterwards amalgamated with the Whitworth firm in Manchester, and became identified with the famous ordnance known throughout the world, with armour plates and with warship building. Among the Directors of the Company have been many well-known names, such as Sir Glyn West, the Rt. Hon. Sir George Murray, K.C.B., Lord Sydenham, G.C.S.I., the late Sir P. Watts, K.C.B., and Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Ottley, K.C.M.G. Lord Southborough, G.C.B., is now Chairman, and the Directors are Sir John Noble, Bart., Mr. Alfred Cochrane, Sir Albert Hadcock, K.B.E., F.R.S., Major Charles Mitchell, D.S.O., Mr. Saxton Noble, Sir Eustace Tennyson d'Eyncourt, K.B.E., F.R.S., and Mr. James Taylor.

The Armstrong Company has just completed and delivered the battleship Nelson for the British Government, and the heavy guns for the Rodney, her sister ship, built on the Mersey. The Nelson was built at Walker Yard. She is 702 feet long, with a displacement of 35,000 tons, and she will mount nine 16-inch guns. She will, with armament, cost £7,500,000. The Armstrong firm has a great record in building warships, not only for the British, but for foreign Governments. It has long been the pride of the North that in Elswick the country has an establishment capable not only of building the ship, but of supplying the armour and guns complete. The growth and activities of the firm over many years, calling for the employment of many thousands of men, have played an important part in the development of the industrial life of Newcastle. Its new naval yard at Walker is capable of a large output. But whatever may be done there in shipbuilding achievements will never efface the great memories that cluster round Elswick which the genius of the late Lord Armstrong called into being. His work placed him among the greatest of those men who in the nineteenth century made the Tyne famous for its notable contributions to the Naval and Mercantile Marine.

As ship-designers and engine-builders, the Tyne firms have been always at the front. It was from Palmer's yard that the John Bowes, which is still afloat, sailed in the early fifties, a little craft of 650 tons, the first of the great fleet of iron-built steam colliers which were the means of bringing the Northern coalfields into the closest touch with the London market. At these same works, too, Sir Charles Palmer demonstrated, a couple of years later (by building the Terror floating battery for the Crimean War), the superiority of rolled armour plates in ships of war. He also originated the double bottom for water ballast. The Palmer Company has built in all one hundred and four warships for the British Government, including twelve battleships, eleven cruisers and forty-eight destroyers.

Hawthorn Leslie and Co

The firm of R. and W. Hawthorn, Leslie and Co, founded by the late Andrew Leslie, has at its St. Peter's works at Newcastle been, like Palmer's, noted for the success of its torpedo-boat destroyers and its marine engines. To the firms of Armstrong and Hawthorn Leslie belongs the credit of turning out the first steamers for carrying oil in bulk, a class of vessel which now affords constant work to the Tyne district. The latter firm is now building for the British Government the cruiser Sussex. On the neighbouring river, the Wear, are to be found shipyards whose histories stretch back to the days of old oak timbers which long since have given way to steel plates and bars.

Sir James Laing and Sons

Sir James Laing and Sons' yard was founded over one hundred years ago; whilst other old-established firms, such as Thompson's, Doxford's, Pickersgill's and Short's, notwithstanding the narrow waterway off their works, have turned out a surprising amount of tonnage year by year. In Sunderland a larger amount of tonnage is normally yielded by a smaller area than in any other shipbuilding centre in the world. No other district can compete with the Wear, Tyne and Tees in the low price at which they build "tramp" steamers of, say, from 4,000 to 6,000 tons.

On the Tyne, Wear and Tees there are forty shipbuilding and twenty-two marine engineering firms, excluding engineering firms by whom complete marine engines are not actually constructed. As to their output, the figures for the eleven years ended December, 1904, which were times of prosperity, show the relative magnitude and importance of this district. During that period there were launched from North-east Coast ports 2,842 merchant steamers, aggregating 7,294,629 tons, thirty-three sailing vessels, the total tonnage of which amounted to 9,342, and eighty-six warships of a total displacement tonnage of 228,008, or a grand total of 2,961 vessels, and of 7,531,979 tonnage. During the same period there were built in the United Kingdom 6,828 steamers amounting to 13,334,984 tons, 573 sailing ships to 349,637 tons, and 440 warships to 1,454,188 tons, or a grand total of 7,841 vessels of 15,138,809 tons. The North-east Coast, therefore, from 1894 to 1904 inclusive, built 54.7 per cent of the steamers, 2.7 per cent of the sailing ships, and 15.7 per cent of the warships, or 49.7 per cent of the whole. It may be of further interest to note that the tonnage launched from this coast was not far short of one-third of the total world's output.

Excluding warships, the Tyne in 1913 produced ninety-four vessels amounting to 366,331 tons, and the Wear and Tees in the same year 140 vessels of 454,707 tons. In 1916, the berths were mostly filled, as was the case in all other districts, with ships of war. Only thirty-five merchant ships were launched in that year on the Tyne, and sixty-two on the Wear and Tees, amounting to 133,336 tons and 165,814 tons respectively. Coming to 1925, we find the Tyne credited with fifty-one vessels of 194,614 tons collectively; and the Wear and Tees with forty-eight of 150,367 tons. These figures reflect the depression in the shipping trade of that period.

The number of ships-of-war built in these islands by the British Government over the same period is given by the Admiralty as follows:—

Year No. Displacement tonnage
1913 46 193,229
1914 55 173,717
1915 243 427,981
1916 357 652,813
1917 425 426,841
1918 676 517,211
1919 342 242,165
1925 2 70,000

As compared with the Clyde, the North-east Coast (comprising the Tyne, Wear, Tees and Hartlepool) was in 1913 slightly ahead in the number and tonnage of vessels launched. As against the 267 vessels and 974,109 tonnage of this coast the Clyde returns show 214 vessels only of 684,787 tons. The Clyde-built passenger boats are, however, of a more important class. In 1916 the North-east Coast, with 108 vessels of 353,445 tons, remained ahead of the Clyde, with forty-eight vessels of 172,157 tons. In 1925 the figures give to the North-east Coast 108 vessels of 382,855 tons, and to the Clyde 122 of 506,717 tons.

It is evident from these figures that the North-east Coast maintains its position on the whole as our greatest shipbuilding centre. The prices obtained for ships in this district, however, rule low. The diminution in overseas trade, the large amount of German tonnage acquired by us at the close of the war, the high productive power of shipbuilders, and the ease with which they can satisfy any demand on them, together with the persuasion that it is best to "fill up" and work to full capacity, irrespective to some degree of economic considerations, are all factors in a cutting of prices to a level that affords either no return on capital, or next to none.

Whilst wages in the shipbuilding trade have not witnessed that inflation which characterises the remuneration of workers in some other branches of industry, considerable advances in their rates have been made. The shipwright in 1913 received 41s. 6d. a week. In 1916 this had increased to 48s. 6d., which sum was still further advanced in 1925 to 55s. 6d. There is no reason, considering the rate of remuneration obtained in other employments, to deem these wages excessive; but there can be no doubt that they constitute a severe burden on the shipbuilding yards, and especially when the other drawbacks to these undertakings are taken into account. This state of things cannot endure for an indefinite period. Shipbuilders faced with courage the situation created by the aftermath of the War, and struggled on in spite of most discouraging circumstances; but they cannot allow their capital resources to be exhausted in efforts to provide employment, and we have probably seen the last of very low shipbuilding prices. If the industry is to live, new tonnage must cost more.

Next in importance to the construction of ships' hulls comes marine engineering. On the North-east Coast this branch has, in spite of the prevailing depression, maintained its position. Taking the years from 1909 to 1913 and the more recent period comprised in the years from 1921 to 1925 as fairly representative average periods in this industry, we find that the output of machinery in indicated horse-power throughout the North-east Coast was at the rate of 36 per cent. (1909-1913) and 38 per cent. (1921— 1925) of the total output of the United Kingdom.

The most remarkable development of propelling machinery in recent years is the epoch-making invention by the Hon. Sir Charles Parsons, O.M., of the steam turbine. Its principle will always be associated with his name and that of his firm, the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co, on the Tyne, although it has been vigorously developed as the Brown Curtis turbine on the Clyde. The first vessel to be driven by the steam turbine was the Turbinia. It was 100 ft. long, with 9 ft. beam and a displacement of 44 tons. During some of its trials it attained the then record speed of 34 knots. It has recently been presented by Sir Charles to the Science Museum of South Kensington, together with the original turbine engine, which was afterwards replaced by other machinery. The vessel was completed in 1894. In the two succeeding years many alterations dependent on trials were made, During the past twenty years the application of turbines for the generation of electricity in municipal areas, in power stations and in workshops, as well as for marine propulsion, has made such great strides that their use has become general, not only in high-speed warships, but in Channel steamers and the best Atlantic liners. Owing, however, to the speed rotation of the turbines being necessarily high for purposes of efficiency, it is impossible to apply the turbine to slow-speed vessels, as the propellers cannot function satisfactorily at such high revolutions. But in 1909 Sir Charles Parsons installed geared turbines in the 10.5-knot cargo steamer Vespasian, from which remarkably successful results were obtained. The Vespasian was a single-screw steamer, and the turbines developed about 1,600 shaft h.p. at sixty-three revolutions per minute. Since that date the geared turbine, suggested by the late George Westinghouse, an American, has gradually displaced the direct turbine drive in even the fastest vessels, as by its means the size of turbine units for the highest powers has been kept within moderate dimensions, thereby enabling increased pressures and increased superheat to be resorted to, all of which result in further gains in economy. The geared turbine has thus been the chief feature of marine engine work in recent years.

The improvement in land turbines in recent years, due to increased steam pressures and superheat, is being applied to marine work by the use of highest steam pressure in water-tube boilers, and by regenerative heating of the feed water by previously expanded steam. There is now no difficulty in providing steel which can safely withstand the highest pressures. A vessel was launched on the Clyde last year (the King George V) of 3,500 h.p., with a boiler pressure of 550 lb. per square inch and the steam superheated to a temperature of 750 degrees. In relation to high-pressure turbines the name of Yarrow and his experimental work will always be remembered.

The first turbine installed in a warship was in the torpedo-boat destroyer Velox, built in 1902. Other turbine-driven destroyers followed, and in 1905 turbines of 15,000 h.p. were installed in the cruiser Amethyst, a vessel of 3,000 tons displacement and 231 knots speed. All these engines were naturally constructed at the works of the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co, but the use of this type became rapidly so general that the total horse-power of marine steam turbines constructed and under construction to-day has been estimated at 35,000,000.

As the output of tonnage reflects the all-round trade activity of shipbuilding districts, the amount of indicated horse-power turned out in any year may be taken as a good indication of the state of the general engineering trades. Of course a large amount of work is done, both in shipyards and in engine and in boiler-shops, which cannot be tabulated, such as repairs to ships and engines and the numerous kindred contracts undertaken by shipbuilding firms, and which represent a large volume of work and wages. The North-east Coast enjoys a reputation for economical repair work. It will therefore be seen that, when this volume of work is added to the great local output of tonnage and machinery, the turnover of the vessels handled on the North-east Coast in average years is very large, and the money it represents must stimulate by its circulation those other trades which supply the personal wants of the working classes, and which prosper with high wages.

It is impossible to assess the money value of tonnage merely from tonnage returns, as many considerations affect the result. Even if the output were confined to a single class, such as tramp steamers, meat boats or oil tankers, it would be difficult to get an absolutely reliable valuation. But when it is remembered that in the returns are included vessels of varying speeds, built for different trades to different specifications for cargo and passenger work, and which may have the effect of varying the price per ton by as much as from 20 to SO per cent., it is evident that to specify a hard-and-fast rate per ton would be misleading.

The advent of the internal-combustion engine or motor has made a great change in the output of propelling machinery contributed by the Tyne. The first sea-going vessel to be fitted with Diesel engines was the twin-screw Italian vessel Romagna, built in 1910 at Ancona. Her engines were made by the famous firm of Sulzer Bros. of Winterthur. The next vessel was the Vulcanus, built in Holland, a vessel of 1,080 tons gross, fitted with Werkspoor four-cycle Diesel engines of 650 h.p. She was followed in the same year by a somewhat bigger boat, the Toiler, a 2,650-ton ship built on the Tyne, and equipped with single-screw machinery of 450 h.p., constructed by the Atlas Diesel Co. of Stockholm, and in 1911 a large motor ship, Selandia, of 7,500 tons d.w., equipped with twin-screw Burmeister and Wain Diesel machinery, having a total of 2,500 h.p., firmly established the reliability of Diesel machinery for ship propulsion. No kind of internal- combustion engine other than the Diesel is used for the larger types of vessels. In the five years ending 1925 the number of steam vessels launched in the world was 3,462, and the number of ships driven by motor 688. The average had been one motor ship to five steamers. In 1925, however, the proportion changed to one motor ship to every three steamers. In 1926 no fewer than 113 vessels, aggregating 601,000 tons gross, were constructed under the supervision of Lloyd's in which this type of engine has been installed. The six leading firms on the Tyne have taken keen interest in the development of the original Diesel engine, which burns crude oil. The types used there are the Sulzer, the Still, the Werkspoor, the Neptune, and the Palmer Opposed Piston. At the end of June 1926 there were forty-five vessels, each of more than 8,000 tons gross, aggregating 439,907 tons, fitted with Diesel engines, and classed at Lloyd's Registry. At the end of the previous year there were only nineteen such vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of 188,477 gross.

World Tonnage Table

The world's tonnage built to Lloyd's class during the last eight years fitted with either (1) reciprocating steam engines, (2) steam turbines or (3) motors, and propelled by coal only, or by oil as fuel for boilers or for motors, is shown in the table below.

  Total steam and motor tonnage classed (inc. Auxiliaries) Type of Engines Fuel
  Stream reciprocating Steam turbines Motors Coal Oil
Period Gross tons Gross tons Gross tons Gross tons Gross tons Per cent Gross tons Per cent
1918-1919 3,760,806 2,633,570 1,051,302 75,934 2,491,213 66.2 1,269,593 33.8
1919-1920 4,186,882 2,821,031 1,286,046 (all geared) 79,805 2,111,289 50.4 2,075,593 49.6
1920-1921 3,229,188 2,373,067 754,513 (all geared) 101,608 1,260,465 39.0 1,968,723 61.0
1921-1922 2,517,513 1,420,924 870,037 (all geared) 226,552 895,032 35.5 1,622,481 64.5
1922-1923 1,610,624 842,358 603,037 (all geared) 165,229 662,565 41.1 948,059 58.9
1923-1924 874,651 610,851 99,464 (all geared but one) 164,336 468,153 53.5 406,498 46.5
1924-1925 1,311,277 894,807 114,009 (all geared) 302,461 671,405 51.2 639,872 48.8
1925-1926 1,324,789 575,984 146,354 (all geared) 6602,45 418,503 31.6 906,286 68.4

The importance of the increasing use of oil, and the consequent decline in the employment of coal, as fuel in the Mercantile Marine is indicated in the foregoing table.

Similar data relating to all existing vessels of too tons gross and upwards, as recorded in the 1926-27 edition of Lloyd's Register Book, are as follows:

Total steam and motor tonnage (including auxiliary screw vessels) 62,671,937 gross.
Type of Engines:-
Steam reciprocating 50,040,978 gross
Steam turbines 9,137,675 gross
Motors 3,493,284 gross
Coal only 40,935,114 gross
Oil (including steamers capable of burning either coal or oil) 21,736,823 gross

For the first time motor tonnage has exceeded the steam tonnage building in the world. In the quarter ended June 30, 1927, the totals, according to Lloyd's Register Returns, were:-

Motor tonnage - 1,459,595

Steam tonnage - 1,366,809

In Great Britain and Ireland the motor tonnage under construction was 627,700, or 82.8 per cent. of the steam tonnage under construction.

During the war the record of the North-east Coast in shipbuilding and engineering was in keeping with its best traditions. Battleships, cruisers, monitors, flotilla leaders, destroyers, submarines, sloops, ice-breakers, train ferries, troop ships, repair and depot and hospital ships, cable steamers, trawlers, mine-sweepers, barges, lighters and launches, floating docks, as well as great numbers of tank steamers and cargo and passenger vessels, were among its contributions, and constituted an output of 1,100 vessels, totalling over 3,000,000 tons. In addition to these, repairs to Government and other ships were carried out on a large scale. During the War the Tyne supplied the battleship Resolution, the cruiser Dauntless and three monitors, as well as eighteen destroyers, all from Palmers' yard at Jarrow. Armstrongs contributed the battleships Agincourt, Malaya and Canada, as well as five cruisers and other craft. Hawthorn Leslie and Swan and Hunter contributed many cruisers and destroyers. In all, the Tyne turned out fifty-five destroyers alone, and Doxfords on the Wear built eighteen. Needless to say, since the Agreement of Washington much of the war shipbuilding on the North-east Coast has vanished. Some of the yards, in fact, are empty, as the merchant tonnage in the market is far below the capacity of the building firms. The industry has suffered also from the alteration during the War by the Board of Trade of the load or Plimsoll line, which had the effect of increasing the carrying capacity of vessels afloat by 1,000,000 tons.

There are now practically the same number of shipbuilding and engineering firms on the Tyne, Wear and Tees as existed twenty years ago. The same applies to the Humber. There have been some amalgamations and some changes of name. Many of the older yards have increased their share and debenture capital and have extended their facilities for handling a large volume of work. On the Tyne, Palmers of Jarrow acquired in 1911 Robert Stephenson and Co's yard and dock at Hebburn, as well as, later, a new shipyard at Amble and a new dock at Swansea. The Hebburn Dock is the largest on the Northeast Coast, and has done much repair work for ships of war.

Swan and Hunter acquired the business of Barclay, Curle and Co on the Clyde, as well as the North British Diesel Engine Works. The same firm and that of W. Gray and Co have each laid down a branch shipyard on the Wear.

A new combination, called the Northumberland Shipbuilding Co, linked up Workman, Clark and Co of Belfast with William Doxford and Sons of Sunderland, as well as acquiring an interest in the Fairfield Yard on the Clyde. This partnership is now dissolved.

A new firm, Renwick and Dalgleish, opened a yard at Hebburn, and Armstrong Whitworth laid down a new yard at Walker, On the other hand, the Sunderland Shipbuilding Company of R. Craggs and Sons, Raylton Dixon and Co, and W. Harkess and Son have left the coast. Furness, Withy and Co's yard is now owned by Irvine's Shipbuilding Co, and a new firm on the Tees is the Cleveland Shipbuilding Co, controlled by the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co.

Most of the firms are limited companies, with probably at least 100,000 shareholders, holding on an average from 300 to 400 £1 shares. The total capital has been estimated at something like £40,000,000, most of which is held locally.

The workers in the shipyards have stood loyally by their employers during recent years, as they now recognise the fact that industry cannot afford to pay wages above its economic capacity, an elementary principle others would also do well to recognise. In reviewing the wages earned by the leading workmen in shipyards as compared with their earnings of twenty years ago and immediately prior to the War, it should be borne in mind that on January I, 1919, the working hours were reduced from fifty-four to forty-seven per week. The shipwrights engaged on the construction of a ship from start to finish are now paid a time rate of 9s. 3d. per day, which is 42.5 per cent better than in 1906, and 33.75 per cent more than their pre-War wage. Other trades, such as joiners, plumbers and fitters, working on time rates, vary from the shipwrights only to the extent of 2s. or 2s. 6d. per week. Labourers, who twenty years ago received 3s. 6d. to 4s. per day, and had risen to 4s. 6d. and 5s, per day before the War, now receive a daily wage of 6s. 5d. to 8s. 2d. On the other hand, the piece-workers receive a much more generous recompense for their labour than the time workers. The leading trade – platers — have always earned high wages, and at present, when paid by weight on certain sections of work, are able to earn up to 40s. per day. This figure applies to men engaged on the shell and decks, and shows an increase of 100 per cent over their earnings of 1906, and 50 per cent over the pre-War period. This increase is, no doubt, largely due to improved machinery, and to the provision of templates, etc., from the moulding loft. Riveters' and caulkers' wages show a similar ratio of increment, and it is now possible for these operatives to earn up to 26s. and 22s. per day respectively.

The length of time required for the construction of all classes of vessels has been considerably shortened. Assembling sheds, where large parts of the ships are riveted together by hydraulic power and afterwards picked up by overhead cranes and dropped into position, the more general use of pneumatic riveting, drilling and caulking tools, all contribute toward more rapid construction. On a rough estimate, the wages paid in the shipbuilding and engineering trades, which probably employ on the North-east Coast 60,000 to 70,000 men and boys, amount in normal times from £5,000,000 to £6,000,000 yearly.

Probably, with the exception of Armstrong Whitworth's, and perhaps the Palmer's and Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson's firms, the capital on which these Companies work has been found, and is still largely owned, in the Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield centres. In some years the shares of the companies quoted on the Newcastle Stock Exchange have stood at a considerable premium, in others at a discount. But the yield taken over a period of ten years before the war gave an average of 6 to 7 per cent per annum, and the capital embarked was well represented by assets. The market prices fell after the boom of the Armistice years, and have since remained at a low figure. During the last decade more debenture capital has been introduced. It is well known that nearly all these companies have strengthened their positions by liberal extensions and renewals of plant out of their gross revenue. Probably a total of not less than £1,500,000 has thus been disposed of during the two years following the cessation of war. It is not surprising that the prevailing conditions should have caused a more than local anxiety among shareholders as to the future prospects of shipbuilding, and that the country generally should view with grave misgivings such competition from the foreign shipbuilder as has been experienced during recent years, as well as the ill-advised policy of strikes on the part of miners and others to enforce conditions of working which are economically impossible and which, if persisted in, must result sooner or later in disaster.

The North-east Coast, more perhaps than any other centre, is in a condition to appreciate the dire effects of such a policy. For, side by side with their great shipbuilding and engineering industries, stand their iron and steel works, and behind them again — and dominating them are the Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire coalfields, the cost of whose products in the last analysis makes or mars other industries. If coal should not be available at an economic price, or is not being raised at all, we have the fundamental cause of idle mills, freightless ships, and empty shipyards and engine shops.

There can be no question that, compared with twenty years ago, the productive capacity of the North-east district has enormously increased, while the costs of management, owing to the installation of modern plant and appliances, economic methods of working, and the consignment to the scrap-heap of many thousands of tons of obsolete machinery, have been materially diminished. The wasteful steam services of former days have been replaced by central electric power stations, and labour-saving machinery has been installed, which, while cheapening cost, has not materially lowered, but in some cases has improved, the actual wages paid per head of those employed. Considering the keen competition and the resulting low prices taken to-day by builders, wages still remain, from a builder's point of view, too high. German and Dutch builders have the advantages of lower wages and cheaper steel. It follows, as a consequence, that while the British ship- and engine-builder is barely able to hold his own to-day against foreign competition for the cheaper class of vessel, the position of the skilled workman is relatively superior to that of his employer. [1]

Labour disputes are happily now less frequent than in the past, owing to the establishment of boards of conciliation and arbitration, in which the men and masters are equally represented, which have done much to smooth over trade difficulties. The North-east Coast was always regarded as inflammable in the matter of differences between capital and labour. Wages in some trades are higher there than in some other districts, and trades union regulations are very rigorously enforced. Unreasonable restrictions are, however, less burdensome than in the years before the great struggle between the masters and the amalgamated engineers, and, so far, the Tyne has been able to hold its own against the competition even of districts where the men take a keener interest in securing big orders and regular work than in supporting internecine warfare between their own unions, or between a particular union and the local employers.

Notwithstanding his high wages and great opportunities, it cannot be stated that the skilled worker is, on the whole, thrifty. Through the medium of building societies, cooperative societies, and savings banks, sums of money large in the aggregate have been saved by the workmen, but the average per head would not be considerable, and it is doubtful whether the great bulk of the men save anything at all. It has always been apparent that, after even a very short spell of hard weather or slack trade involving loss of employment, men earning high wages are more or less dependent upon charitable relief funds. Nobody can look at the statistics of the national drink bill — which, it may be noted, hardly fell of at all during the strikes of 1926 — without feeling that the large sums thus squandered by the working classes might be more profitably diverted into the purchase of their own houses, which can now be so easily effected through the numerous building societies instituted for that purpose.

The extent to which a community may be dependent for its welfare upon the prosperity of its leading industry is strikingly illustrated in the cases of Jarrow and Middlesbrough — the one the cradle of iron shipbuilding, and the other the centre of the Cleveland iron trade — which are remarkable examples of towns founded and developed by the enterprise and energy of individuals and the success of the undertakings which they initiated. Seventy years ago the Tyneside town, now numbering some 40,000 inhabitants, was a small colliery village. Today it boasts a town-hall, with a mayor and corporation, a Parliamentary representative and all the organisation of a thriving township. The foundation by Sir Charles Palmer of the works which bear his name, the building of colliers and warships for which the place became reputed, and the gradual expansion of the small shipyard into the great self-contained establishment that exists to-day—embracing not only a shipyard, but engine works, blast furnaces, and steel works—have created the Mid-Tyne borough, besides contributing to the prosperity of the whole district. And not only has Jarrow grown up around the works, but it is today entirely dependent upon them. There is probably no other town whose interests are more closely identified with the success of a single firm.

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Sources of Information

  1. The reconstruction of capital which has been carried out in the case of Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. and Vickers is an indication that unless an improvement in trade takes place other establishments may find their liquid resources insufficient to maintain their capital intact, in which case further reductions of share capital must follow, coupled with the re-arrangement of prior charges. But it should be remembered that the losses of the great firms adverted to arose mainly from speculative undertakings unconnected with shipbuilding. After the war they turned to developments in other directions. Palmer's Shipbuilding Sc Iron Co. also has had recourse to a reduction and re-arrangement of capital. But in this case the firm had made no outside investments foreign to its real objects, but it suffered from the lock-up of working capital caused by heavy overhead charges, and the impossibility of taking orders for ships, engines, steel or iron at the prices current during the last five years in sufficient number to fill the yard and works.